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Lesson 1.6

Are Schools Improving?

Are schools getting better? The answer may surprise you.

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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.

Yes, schools are improving

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.)

Source: CA Department of Education Source: CA Department of Education. Click for additional detail
Source: CA Department of Education Source: CA Department of Education. Click for additional detail

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.)

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 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.

Beating the Odds

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?

Updated May 17 2017. Considered whether to remove and replace references to old test scores. Decided to keep them, because the new scores cannot yet adequately show the main point of this lesson, which is that over the long term more students are learning more and scoring better.


Which one of the following statements is NOT true?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 18, 2018 at 7:57 am
Does a recession have an impact on student progress?
Two recent studies take a look at the impact of the Great Recession and student achievement.
They come to similar conclusions: Cuts in education funding matter. And they seem to matter most for low income students.

The Impact of the Great Recession on Student Achievement: Evidence from Population Data

Do School Spending Cuts Matter? Evidence from the Great Recession
user avatar
Steven Davis June 11, 2018 at 4:00 pm
Please add data here and throughout on special needs kids!
user avatar
David Siegrist1 November 15, 2017 at 8:29 am
And Asian stydents’ academic performance?
user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 1:05 pm
Could it be that schools are so concentrated on teaching our children how to pass these standardized tests rather than concentrate on their long-term goal of a child's education?
user avatar
May 3, 2017 at 11:29 am
Too much restriction and policy on how school should use the funding to education the students.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 28, 2015 at 1:43 pm
The charts in this page are visited again in Lesson 9.6, where we make an important point: "By the nature of statistics, if a cut-off point stays put while a curve moves, metrics can exaggerate the scale of the change if the cut point is anywhere close to the steep part of the curve. Education statistics are loaded with metrics derived from cut-off scores."
user avatar
tonyammarquez April 28, 2015 at 1:39 am
I'd like to know who is in charge of evaluating and\orregulating the tests that are referred to in Ed100?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 28, 2015 at 10:59 am
Thanks, Tony. Ed100 refers to many tests (there are a lot of them, explored in lesson 9.3!) In this lesson (1.6) the focus is on the NAEP tests. The NAEP tests are overseen by an appointed, independent governing body of 26 members. The members I have met have been passionately committed to the work of giving America a meaningful, useful barometer of student learning throughout the country, and have understood the statistical challenges of doing this work properly. These tests are NOT the ones that everyone has to take -- they are administered only on a "sample" basis as a tool for understanding what's really happening.
user avatar
sylviambee April 7, 2015 at 11:38 am
My son is academically advanced compared to me at that age. Of course there are some similarities and differences that contribute to this matter. My son attends public school, I attended private, Catholic schools for 9 years. I earned a BA before my son was born, and completed a Masters program before he was 11. My mom earned her BA when I was 13. Both my parents were immigrants and had to learn English, only my son's father was an immigrant and had to learn English. My parents were required to volunteer at my school, but usually outside the classroom. My husband and I volunteered inside and outside of the classroom. I was a stay at home mom when my son was in grades 2-6, my parents worked full-time. I had babysitters and Was a latch-key kid by age 8. My son has always been picked up from school, and only until this past year does he walk to a nearby after-school site. There are really so many factors leading to the reasons why my son is academically advanced compared to my experiences.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 6:57 am
I'm not a huge fan of test scores, however I do acknowledge that they are needed to track progress. That said, I also believe that students should also be given opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in other ways besides a standardized test. The focus of districts is always on scores, not on the overall education experience and how it is preparing kids for the real world. I don't TEST my employees - I watch how they interact, work collaboratively, and contribute to the overall health of the company. I look at their interpersonal relationships with their colleagues and their commitment to developing their skills. Educational systems would benefit from using a business model if they want to prepare students for real world work environments.
user avatar
tonyammarquez April 28, 2015 at 1:43 am
I'm glad you said that very good point!
user avatar
Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 9:31 am
A big part of helping high-poverty students succeed is to eliminate (or ameliorate) the impact of poverty on these children - i.e. stable housing and electricity, nutritious and dependable food, quality childcare outside of school hours, reliable transportation to school, etc. Is this really the job of the school or is it the responsibility of other public institutions? In my opinion, schools should be responsible for "educating" and we need to step up other programs to deal with poverty.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 22, 2015 at 9:22 pm
Thanks, Sherry -- most of the topics that you touch on here are examined in more depth in chapter 2, which focuses on students and what they bring with them (for good or ill) that affects their learning. Efforts to integrate school with "wraparound services" are explored in lesson 5.7, on "community schools".
user avatar
Lauren Dutton March 10, 2011 at 7:06 am
Indeed, throughout California there are shining examples of outstanding "beating the odds" public schools. Located directly in some of our state's most under-served communiies, they are doing whatever it takes to ensure that their students are on the path to success in college and in life. In turn, these schools are demonstrating that ALL students can succeed at high levels and deserve our highest expectations. It is up to us as adults to figure out how to ensure that these are not isolated examples but that we learn from and scale these approaches.

There are many examplars, but as the post mentions KIPP is one strong example with 12 schools in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Check out the comprehensive Mathematica study on their national results here:
©2003-2018 Jeff Camp
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