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, all over America, including California. Test scores are rising. Graduation rates are improving. Disciplinary cases like expulsions and suspensions are becoming more rare. 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. You can find results of the last few years here.)
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.
In 2018, data assembled for the "Getting Down to Facts II" project included good and bad news for California. First the good news: "...once students begin school, their academic achievement increases slightly faster in California than the average nationwide. Other than in the richest districts, growth rates in California are slightly greater than the nation."
Now some not-so-good news: According to the report, the results weren't so great for students from less-well-off families. "Though California had been making progress in the last decade among low, average, and high SES [socioeconomic status] districts, data from 2015 show a reversal of that progress in poor and middle-class districts from 2013 to 2015. Educational opportunities in small towns and rural communities are particularly lacking.
To be clear, even with recent progress 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 API system was abandoned when the state adopted the Common Core Standards and began using the CAASPP tests instead of the STAR tests.
Grading schools with a single "API score" glossed over a lot of detail. In 2017 California replaced the API with the California School Dashboard.
Grading schools with a single number obviously glossed over a lot of detail. After years of debate, in early 2017 California shifted to a new, 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. 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.
Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, and continuing today, a key function of school accountability systems (like the California School Dashboard today, or the API system before it) has been to calculate differences in results for "subgroups." For example, if there are a significant number of students of a specific ethnicity in a school or district, the Dashboard shows the results for 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.
But shaming isn't the only reason to look at the subgroup scores: they can also show reasons for pride, and for learning, because some schools "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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