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.
A decade ago, it was very difficult to credibly identify high-achievement schools in high-poverty and high-minority settings. Today, it is much easier to find them. These schools prove that children’s destinies are not coldly and totally predetermined by poverty and ethnicity. These exceptional schools even have an acronym in education reform speak: “Beating the Odds,” or BTO schools.
Over the long run, there is strong evidence that educational achievement is steadily, slowly improving for students in all subgroups. For example, the charts below show the growth in the number of students scoring "proficient" or better during the final ten years of California's state tests in math and language arts. (These tests have since been replaced with new ones that align with Common Core standards. It's too early to show long-term results on the new tests.)
Each year, a statistical sample of students take a different test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), nicknamed the "Nation's Report Card." The results of this test also show long-term improvement, though California's scores dipped slightly in 2015.
To be clear, there is no reason to believe that California's educational results are improving more quickly than educational results elsewhere. California remains at or near the bottom of the pile in national and international comparisons. But it does appear that the long, slow trend is upward. Kids are learning more. (Look back at the graph in Lesson 1.1 for the big picture, or check Lesson 9.6 for more about the achievement gaps that hide beneath the average.)
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 state set 800 points on this index as the target that it expected each school to surpass, and for about a decade scores went up annually. The API system was abandoned when the state adopted the Common Core Standards and began using the CAASPP tests instead of the STAR tests. In 2013, the last year of the STAR tests, the percentage of elementary schools in California that scored above 800 points on the API tipped downward for the first (and, by definition also the last) time.
Grading schools with a single number obviously glossed over a lot of detail.
Grading schools with a single number obviously glossed over a lot of detail. After years of debate, in early 2017 the State Board of Education adopted a "scorecard approach" that incorporates several ways of measuring the success of a school in a color-coded report. Developing this scorecard 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 will make it more 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. 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. The job of scoring schools in a way that they can be ranked seems likely to be taken up by the media. Since 1986, US News and World Report has made a good business out of scoring and ranking colleges, for example.
During the NCLB era, California's API system documented achievement gaps by calculating scores for "subgroups." For example, if there were a significant number of students of a specific ethnicity in a school or district, the API system generated a score for the school for that subgroup. District press releases and media usually focused on top-level API scores, but published subgroup scores helped make achievement gaps visible. They provided a bit of "shame" motivation for schools to remember all of their kids when evaluating their success. These public scores also helped shine attention on schools that "beat the odds."
Schools that beat the odds are important, because they show that the kids are not the problem. They prove beyond doubt 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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