COMMENTARY: Leaving ‘apples to oranges’ behind, California has a chance to paint a true picture of our schools’ performances

Credit: Green Dot Public Schools

An English language arts class at Ánimo Jefferson Charter Middle School in Los Angeles.

There are a few big reasons why students’ report cards are a useful measure of how well they are learning. Their previous report card is one. The next one is another.

But without the context and trajectory provided by three, four or many years of grades in English language arts, math and other subjects, a solitary report card is worth little more than the paper it used to be printed on. Only with the full picture can a student’s parents or caregivers judge how well their child is learning and improving.

The same is true for judging schools.

Unfortunately, the same actually isn’t true in California, which long has lacked the most fundamental measurement of school performance on the job that matters most: how well are they are educating students.

Finally, we are a step closer to this common-sense improvement after the State Board of Education earlier this month adopted student growth as the way to measure student achievement. This long overdue move, supported by a wide range of education advocates, aligns California with the assessment practices of 48 other states.

Measuring student growth means what you’d expect — tracking individual students’ performance on statewide testing, year after year. Until now, California has used the test scores of entirely different groups of students — for instance, last year’s fifth graders compared to this year’s fifth graders — as its measure of a school’s performance. Of course, the only similarity between those two sets of students is both were in the fifth grade when tested, rendering the comparison all but meaningless when judging how well their school is educating them.

If that sounds like a nonsensical comparison of the “apples to oranges” type, that is because it is. With a student growth measure in place, we will be able to determine if a school is doing a good job by seeing if its students actually are improving on these tests each year — or if the opposite is true.

Of course, parents and caregivers and teachers — not to mention policymakers and others making budgeting decisions — have to be able to access and understand these scores. And that is where serious work remains and where the state board needs to be ready to take more, and bolder, steps.

The most essential of these steps is to incorporate the growth measures into the California School Dashboard. Both the state board and California Department of Education have an opportunity to remake the dashboard into a tool for parents that truly provides them with “meaningful information” about their child’s school. While the current color-coded system is easy to use, adding student growth will demand nuances and details that may need more than a color to describe.

Most critical is how it will take into account students who may have started behind their peers and convey their progress, which could be among the fastest even if students are testing comparatively low in terms of absolute scores. The current dashboard lacks this vital measure of school performance, a major deficiency and hindrance in providing families with a clear understanding of how a school is doing.

Fortunately, the state board has time to get things right. Because testing was suspended in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, California will not have a full measure of student growth before at least 2024, when there are three years of testing results. (It could be longer if enough school districts opted to forgo California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress testing in the 2020-21 year as well.) The state board and Department of Education should take full advantage of this window of opportunity.

As both work on improving the dashboard, it is imperative that they listen attentively to the needs and wants of parents and families. Student growth, while complex, also is the best and fairest measure of student and school performance. California has the chance to provide families with meaningful information, as the dashboard now promises. It ought to make sure that information is what families say will be most useful.


Annette Gonzalez is chief academic officer for Green Dot Public Schools California.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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