Which school do you want to support?
The last few lessons discussed the evidence that too many of California's students are learning too little in school, especially relative to those in other states and nations. Despite the scale of the challenges, there is also good news.
Two decades ago, it was very difficult to credibly identify high-achievement schools in high-poverty and high-minority settings. Today, it is easy to find them. These schools prove that children’s destinies are not coldly and totally predetermined by poverty and ethnicity.
Graduation rates have risen. So have test scores. More students are learning more.
Over the long run, there is strong evidence that educational achievement is slowly improving all over the world. In America, including California, long-term measurable learning results have been improving for students in all subgroups. Graduation rates are improving. College-going rates have risen. Disciplinary cases like expulsions and suspensions are becoming more rare. Test scores are generally rising, too - though they suffered in the pandemic.
As described in Ed100 Lesson 1.1, America's best tool for directly measuring educational progress is the NAEP test. (The acronym NAEP stands for National Assessment of Educational Progress). It enables meaningful statistical comparisons over time and place.
Over decades, NAEP scores have risen, with big gaps among racial and ethnic groups. In recent years, however, scores tipped broadly downward, leaving experts scratching their heads, frowning in concern and sifting the data for exceptions.
Poverty plays a huge role in the measurable gaps in student learning. Over time, scores have been rising for students from both richer and poorer families, according to the NAEP results. This graph uses eligibility for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to represent income status:
Scores on the NAEP exams matter. They help describe long-arc changes in the academic capabilities of America's student body. They quantify differences in academic readiness between groups of students. As discussed in Lesson 1.3, assuming the NAEP is like the PISA test, these scores may even predict the future of the economy.
On their own, though, scores are abstract. Reactions to the raw scores generally fall somewhere in the boredom triangle between "uh-huh," "so what?" and "I'm sorry, were you talking to me?"
To give the scores some meaning, the NAEP governing board defines a cut-score that it labels as proficient for each test. Students that score above the cut-score are proficient. Those below it aren't.
The proficiency cut score for each grade level happens to have been set about ten scale points above the grade beneath it. This is almost certainly the source of a widely-used (but incorrect) approximation: a ten-point difference in a NAEP score is said to be equivalent to a year of learning.
Cut scores can help make conversation about test results more meaningful, but they deserve some skepticism, which is why in this lesson we are favoring scale scores. Cut scores (like proficiency rates) distort and exaggerate differences, as we describe in Lesson 9.6. Students know about cut-scores from grades: a score of 79 isn't so different from a score of 80, right? But on a report card one is a B and the other is a C. When a normal distribution curve shifts across a fixed cut score, even tiny shifts can seem like a big deal, depending on where the cut-points have been placed.
Statistical wobbles notwithstanding, the evidence suggests that each successive generation of California's kids has been learning more than those before them... just like kids all over America and all over the world. Slow, widespread improvement in education results is normal. Despite recent progress, California remains at or near the bottom of the pile in national and international comparisons. For California's students to thrive, they have to do more than keep up.
How can California deliver education improvement? Changing one thing at a time isn't enough. In 2013 California began implementing a set of policies to evolve the system in a coordinated way:
In 2018, a coordinated research project known as Getting Down to Facts II assembled research to examine the effects of all of this interrelated change. Based on a national comparison titled A Portrait of Educational Outcomes in California, students’ academic achievement improved a bit faster in California than in other states, but with big gaps.
Background: What's the Score?
For many years, California bundled test results in various subjects and at different grade levels into a single annual school-wide statistic called the Academic Performance Index (API). The API system was abandoned in 2012-13 when the state adopted the Common Core Standards and began using the CAASPP tests instead of the STAR tests.
Grading schools with a single number obviously glossed over a lot of detail. After years of debate, in early 2017 California shifted to a broader way of evaluating success for schools and districts, the California School Dashboard. The Dashboard measures schools in a variety of ways to show both current conditions as well as momentum. For more on this topic please see our Ed100 blog series on the California School Dashboard. Visit the Dashboard to find your school's results.
Developing the Dashboard proved difficult not only because of disagreements about what should be included but limitations in what data the state has the capacity to collect. California's education data systems are notoriously weak. Because it includes multiple measures, the scorecard makes it difficult to rank schools in a simplistic way.
The impetus to score and rank schools originated, in part, from federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which was America's main federal education law during the Bush and Obama administrations. With the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal requirement was softened: states became obligated only to identify the lowest-performing 5% of schools for Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI).
A key function of school accountability systems like the California School Dashboard has been to highlight differences in results for student subgroups. For example, if there are a significant number of students of a specific ethnicity in a school or district, the California School Dashboard can show the results for just that subgroup. Differences among subgroup scores can suggest where a school or district ought to focus its attention. Like it or not, these differences also deliver a bit of "shame" motivation for schools to remember all of their kids when evaluating their success.
Schools that beat the odds are important because they show that the kids are not the problem. They prove that, given the right support, every child can learn. They provide evidence that investing in kids really can make a difference, even where it seems hard. They convert the doubters' claim that "those kids can't learn" to "those kids won't learn unless...
The difference is important.
What are the ideas, approaches, programs, interventions, investments, and inspirations that can lift California’s student achievement from the bottom of the developed world, boost economic growth and make a crucial difference in children’s lives and America’s future?
Answering that question is the focus of the lessons ahead. But first, let's back up a little. Education isn't all about scores, or even about economic competition. What is it for? And has our view of education's purpose changed over time?
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