California's New School Dashboard

by Jeff Camp | December 5, 2018 | 2 Comments
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Understanding the School Dashboard

Part One in a series

The California School Dashboard is California's statewide system for looking at success for schools and school districts

The Dashboard is NOT a single grade or rating. Instead, it is a collection of "indicators" — a bit like the dashboard of a car. On most car dashboards, a light turns on when there might be a problem. To find out more, you have to look into it. Sometimes you have to pop the hood and pull out the owner's manual because, well, cars are complicated. So are schools.

What does it do?

The Dashboard summarizes how well your school is doing in multiple ways, which we explore in this series of posts. The Dashboard is useful for school district leaders, school board members, and PTA leaders because it can help spot patterns not just within individual schools, but across groups of schools. It also provides some information about whether conditions are improving or not.

Let's start with some basics.

The Dashboard uses color-coded performance indicators in five levels. Some colors are more common than others, but which ones are more most common varies by indicator. The labels below are unofficial. Officially they are just colors, period.)

Not every indicator on the Dashboard uses all the colors. But you get the idea:

  • Red is bad. It demands attention. It's also relatively uncommon.
  • Orange is bad, but better than red.
  • Yellow isn't good news, but it's not bad, either. For most indicators (especially math and English) it is a wide performance band that can cover a lot of cases.
  • Green indicates good news.
  • Blue is "cool." It's extra good. Even better than green.

In Dashboard reports, icons accompany the five colors, allowing reports to be printed in black and white. The icons look like this:

Dashboard icons

The indicators on the dashboard are meant to direct attention where it might be needed, so that you will take a closer look and figure out what to do about it.

Why the California School Dashboard Exists

From the outside, it's hard to know what's going on within districts and schools. But parents need trustworthy information about schools to make good choices for their kids. Voters want good information to know that schools are working. School leaders need information to help them improve.

Until 2014, California schools were rated using a single score, the Academic Performance Index (API), based exclusively on test scores. The API system is gone. In its place, the Dashboard provides multiple indicators of school performance and improvement. These indicators are designed to provide information related to the priorities that school districts and county offices of education must address in their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).

Key Dashboard Concept: Performance

Several of the indicators share an important similarity: they are meant to show "Performance" rather than just their current status. What's the difference?

Performance is Status adjusted for Change

"Performance" blends how things are ("status") with how they are changing. For example, an average graduation rate maintained over several years results in a typical (yellow) performance report. A very high graduation rate that sharply decreases to average shows a more troubling performance report. When the dashboard draws your attention, it's an invitation to dig deeper.


Digging deeper often means looking beyond simple averages. The Dashboard can present a big-picture summary of performance in schools and districts... but it often makes sense to focus on "subgroups" to make sure all students are getting the attention and support they need.

For example, schools often look at test scores by grade level, gender, ethnicity, and parents' economic status. School districts need to know if they are successfully educating students in foster care, or learning English, or with special education needs. The Dashboard can show these views.

Under Construction

The California School Dashboard debuted in 2017 as a work in progress, with the usual technical difficulties, but it improved rapidly. Small school districts tend to use the Dashboard as-is, but larger ones have developed their own custom tools and views. EdSource has built tools that help summarize dashboard data across the state to facilitate comparisons and insights. Click into EdSource's summary and you'll find multi-year data about each school, where available. These tools rely on the Department of Education's 5x5 system, described later in this series of blog posts.

Mary Perry and Carol Kocivar contributed to this post.
Updated Feb 18, 2017 to further simplify the explanation.
Updated Mar 15, 2017 to change the post to present tense where needed and add graphics.
Updated Mar 15, 2017 to add link to EdSource database tool.
Updated Mar 20, 2017 to replace outdated video.
Updated December 2018 with updated graphics.

This post is part of Ed100's series about the California School Dashboard:

Context: Ed100 Lesson 9.7
Part 1: Overview
Part 2: The Indicators
Part 3: Performance Colors
Part 4: Math and English
Part 5: English Learners
Part 6: Attendance and Absenteeism
Part 7: Suspensions
Part 8: Graduation
Part 9: College and Career Success
Part 10: "Local" Indicators for School Districts

Questions & Comments

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Kelley Mccarty November 29, 2019 at 6:21 pm
This gives parents, students and teachers a good look at individual areas that are good and others that need improvement.
user avatar
Kelley Mccarty November 29, 2019 at 6:17 pm
This chapter has given me some great ideas to instill parent engagement nights and have Administration from the school review the School Dashboard and encourage parents to view the dashboard. As PTA President I can study each area on the dashboard and bring ideas to the board members on how we can help the school with areas that need improvement for the students an teachers.
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