Which school do you want to support?
Is your school successful at educating the children it serves? It's a tough question for many reasons, beginning with a powerful cognitive bias: it goes against human nature to be objective about your own choices.
When you enroll your child at a school, you are making a choice -- even if you lack realistic alternatives. As a parent, you want to believe that the school you have accepted for your child must be at least OK, right? It's natural to hope for the best.
Facts can't eradicate wishful thinking, but they can at least challenge it. In 2017, the California Department of Education took a big step to elevate the use of facts to evaluate schools by releasing the first version of the long-awaited California School Dashboard.
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.
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 you spot patterns. Within individual schools or across groups of schools, the Dashboard can help you see where the news is good or bad.
The indicators on the Dashboard summarize performance into five color-coded levels. Some colors are more common than others. Each indicator works a little differently, and the spread below shouldn't be taken too literally. (The labels below are unofficial. Officially they are just colors, period.)
In Dashboard reports, icons accompany the colors, allowing them to be printed in black and white. The icons look like pie charts, but they are really just symbols meant to represent different performance levels:
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. 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.
The Dashboard may seem complex, but it replaced a system that was too simple. Prior to the Dashboard, California ranked schools using a single score, the Academic Performance Index (API), which was based entirely on standardized tests. In practice, API scores were strongly correlated with wealth and proved of limited use as a diagnostic tool to help schools improve. After more than a decade of use, the API was discontinued in 2014 at the same time California dropped its old testing system and adopted the Common Core State Standards.
In contrast to the API's singular focus on test scores, the Dashboard sports multiple indicators related to the eight priorities that school districts must address in their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The Dashboard does not generate an overall score that can be used to compare or rank schools. The Ed100 blog includes more detail about the specific indicators on the Dashboard.
Several of the indicators on the Dashboard share an important similarity: they are meant to show "Performance" rather than just the most recent status of a measurement. What's the difference?
Performance is Status adjusted for Change
To evaluate "Performance," the Dashboard compares how things are ("status") with how they are changing for better or worse. For example, the indicator for graduation rates takes into consideration both the most recent graduation rate as well as the prior year's rate. On the Dashboard, context matters: two schools with exactly the same current graduation rate could show different performance levels on the Dashboard depending on whether that rate represents an increase or a decrease. When the Dashboard draws your attention, it's an invitation to dig deeper.
Digging deeper means looking beyond averages. The Dashboard can present a big-picture summary of performance in schools and districts, but it can also show filtered views that help you focus on student subgroups. This can help you see patterns. If you are trying to ensure that no students are being left behind, the Dashboard can help you advocate for changes to ensure that all kids get 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 also 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.
Because the California School Dashboard is such an important resource in California's education system, we provide a lot more information about it in the Ed100 blog. Here are the major posts, organized as a series:
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