While the State Board rethinks how it measures California schools, let’s rethink how we measure JUHSD schools

In a move that had public school advocates throughout California breathing a short sigh of relief, the State Board of Education voted to suspend its use of the Academic Performance Index (API) for an additional year.

The API, a relic from the passing of 1999’s Public Schools Accountability Act, is a score that has been “awarded” to each California school based primarily on student performance on standardized test scores, traditionally the California Standards Test (CST) and California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). With the big move to implement the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the State Board announced last year that it would suspend the use of API as it began adopting a new standardized test to measure students’ grasp of CCSS.

This latest State Board vote casts further doubt about the way California has been ranking its public schools, and EdSource hypothesizes that it brings us “one step closer to the 15-year-old accountability system’s expected demise.” AFT 1481 shares this optimism and hopes that it truly is a sign of a renewed conversation about how California should measure schools’ progress and overall success at educating our students. Why? Standardized tests in general are incredibly problematic, raising concerns about test bias and fairness. Furthermore, overemphasizing test scores has placed undue pressure to incorporate test preparation in the curriculum, shifting some focus away from grappling with rigorous content and practicing key skills. In the end, the focus on standardized test scores simply ignores the many other indicators of successful schools that AFT 1481’s members work hard every day to foster in JUHSD’s schools, like our students’ enthusiastic attendance and participation, the variety in our schools’ elective course offerings, our development of safe and respectful learning environments, our ability to retain experienced faculty and staff, and so much more.

The State Board seems to be on the right track; it seems to be looking beyond test scores to find a better way of measuring California’s schools, hopefully ones that are in sync with the ways that AFT 1481, our students, and their families judge JUHSD schools. The EdSource article’s author, John Fensterwald, offers a clearer picture of what this latest Board vote means in his article’s comments section:

All the statements and signals from the board and its advisers point toward downplaying standardized test scores as the sole or even primary element in a new accountability system. I don’t think anyone knows — including board members — what the new system will look like, but board members will have plenty of metrics from which to choose and many aren’t related to testing… There are many ways to measure whether students leave school ready for whatever they choose to do in life. And they can’t credibly take the form of a single grade — even if some states insist that it can…

That is not to say there will not continue to be some form of an API…. But if it continues to exist — that’s anyone’s guess — it will be just one piece of a larger system…

Meanwhile, parents and schools will get scores on the Smarter Balanced results this spring, and they should hold their districts for making progress on the specific goals that they set in their yearly LCAPs. That’s accountability, though, for now, it’s locally based.

So while we wait for the State to determine how it will be measuring schools moving forward, there’s work to be done at the local level. The district has a huge task ahead of it…one that it’s been hard at work trying to address since last year. The development of the LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan), alluded to at the end of Fensterwald’s commentary, is a space at the district level where this valuable more-than-just-test-scores conversation can happen. How well will the district be able to unite its stakeholders—its students, families, AFT 1481’s membership, and the residents of the cities we serve—so that there’s agreement about the best ways for us as a community to judge the quality of JUHSD’s schools? Perhaps the State’s recent pause of the business-as-usual API will inspire our district as a whole to take a collective stab at the State Board of Education’s dilemma and determine innovative ways to measure our work…ones that go well beyond mechanically computing our students’ performance on the CSTs/SBAC/CAHSEE/etc. It’ll take a lot of work, but the end result could mean that our community commits to finding innovative ways to better demonstrate what we already know based on our shared experience: JUHSD’s schools are phenomenal in a way that a three-digit score simply can’t capture.