Now is the time to end California’s conflicting accountability systems


Californians can’t be blamed for being confused about whether their schools are doing well or badly.

That’s because for the past decade Californians have lived with two conflicting ways of holding schools accountable for the performance of their students: a state and a federal one.

Depending on which system they turn to, Californians might be told that the very same school is either failing or succeeding.

As efforts pick up both in Washington and Sacramento to reform their respective accountability systems – and new assessments are devised under the Common Core initiative – this is the best imaginable time to work toward a single measure of rating California’s schools.

Education insiders may be able to parse the conflicting systems. But for the average Californian, the dueling systems are much more likely to confound than clarify.

That is likely to continue to be the case when California releases its updated list of Program Improvement schools – the closest a school gets to being declared “failing” under the No Child Left Behind law –  today.

Chart 1 (click to enlarge).

Chart 1 (click to enlarge).

By the measuring stick established by NCLB, California’s public school system is doing poorly – and getting worse each year.

The percentage of California schools that have made Adequate Yearly Progress has plummeted from 74 percent to 40 percent between 2005-06 and 2009-10, as this EdSource chart shows. See Chart 1.

The number of schools in need of “program improvement” – tantamount to failure under the NCLB rules – nearly tripled, from 1,200 schools in 2003-04 to 3,169 schools in 2010-11. That’s due in large part to the fact that the federal system raises the bar each year for the percentage of students expected to perform at “proficient” level.

Chart 2 (click to enlarge).

Chart 2 (click to enlarge).

And this year, an astonishing 4,600 schools, or 80 percent of  so-called Title 1 schools serving large numbers of poor children, will be stuck with the stigmatizing Program Improvement label, Superintendent of  Public Instruction Tom Torlakson disclosed last week. See Chart 2.

But based on results from California’s own accountability system, the picture is just the reverse: California schools are improving steadily each year.

Chart 3 (click to enlarge).

Chart 3 (click to enlarge).

The proportion of schools scoring 800 or more on the Academic Performance Index, the state’s benchmark for adequate school performance, has increased significantly, from 31 percent of schools in 2007 to 46 percent in 2010. See Chart 3.

The main reason that schools do better on California’s accountability system is because of the state’s emphasis on measuring improvement

Chart 4 (click to enlarge).

Chart 4 (click to enlarge).

in growth in student outcomes from year to year, rather than on meeting fixed “proficiency” targets set by the federal system.

Thus, under California’s system, the number of schools that met all their API growth targets increased from 45 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2010. See Chart 4.

Still confused? Try understanding the recent report that found California students did far better on state tests than they did on the nationally administered National Assessment of Education Progress.

That seemed to conflict with the optimistic results of California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), which showed more students than ever scoring at a proficient level or higher.

Meanwhile, leaders in Washington and Sacramento continue to push for reform of their respective systems. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is considering giving some states waivers from the most onerous, and unattainable, provision of NCLB, which mandates that all students score at a proficient level or above on state tests by 2014.

But it is far from clear that California will get a waiver, even as more and more schools are effectively labeled as failing under NCLB requirements.

In California, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and others want to revise the Academic Performance Index, the cornerstone of the state’s accountability system. In SB 547, now making its way through the Legislature, the API would be replaced with an Education Quality Index (EQI),  which would be based on multiple measures in addition to test scores.

But these bicoastal efforts, regardless of their merits, don’t resolve California’s conflicting accountability systems.

From a budgetary standpoint alone, having to maintain these two systems imposes a burdensome and arguably unnecessary expense at a time of extreme fiscal crisis for schools and the state.

This is not just an education or budget problem. It is also a political one. If lawmakers and voters can’t say with certainty whether their multibillion dollar investment in public education is paying off, it will be extremely difficult to persuade them to make further investments in California’s struggling and cash-starved schools.

Resolving the conflict will depend at least in part on what Congress does whenever it gets around to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But until the state is able to bring its system in line with the federal one, or vice versa, confusion will reign. In return for their annual investment of tens of billions of dollars in K-12 schools, Californians are entitled to a far clearer picture of how their schools are doing.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to engaging Californians on critical challenges facing the state’s education system. He has analyzed and reported on California education policy issues for more than two decades. He was a co-founder of California Watch and previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was an education reporter, Washington correspondent, columnist, and member of the editorial board. He has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.


  1. How many of those schools scoring 800 and above are actually preparing students for college and career. It doesn’t matter which system one pays attention to if that which is being measured does not accurately depict whether or not our educational system is actually doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Much of the improvements of API are due to schools and students becoming better at bubbling and understanding question patterns and topics covered by “super-standards” with schools spending more time on those topics. It’s all a facade as most of our students in California can’t write an analytical essay (it’s not tested) or solve real-world math and science problems (not tested either). Our over-reliance on these tests to assess how good our schools are whether in the state or federal system is farcical.

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  2. Every non-education wonk person I know of that looks at school performance numbers looks at the API.  This is the number that has a direct impact on property values.  Unless a person gets involved in school policies/politics he likely doesn’t even know about NAEP or AYP.  Because CA chose a non-linear (to put it mildly) improvement curve for AYP more people are likely to learn about that number in the coming few years.  ( So its not fair to pin all of the confusion surrounding AYP on the federal government ).  Also when looking for a neighborhood to live in people don’t really care about school improvement.  They will pick a school by an absolute number vs. how many API points it improved in the last year.  So I think most people have a decent practical assessment of what’s going on (at least subconsciously).  Especially the people that can actually make a difference.  The hard part is encouraging people not to look the other way.  I don’t see a new number accomplishing that task.

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  3. Great article, but Mr. Freedberg doesn’t mention one of the reasons so many of our schools will go into Program Improvement this year.  In addition to the nonlinear improvement curve adopted by California (which is now requiring annual growth in proficiency of 10% or more), many otherwise “successful” schools with an overall API of over 800, or even 900, will end up in Program Improvement and labeled by the Feds as “failing” because one or more of their subgroups are not meeting the targets.  Closing that achievement gap was one of the goals of No Child Left Behind, and had school districts been able to marshall the resources necessary to address this ahead of the curve, we would not have our feet to the fire now under the rules of PI.

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  4. Louis   You need to learn a lot more about NAPE and the API  before you jump in to opinion stuff in this area! John

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  5. Steinberg’s
    SB 547 would be a huge step forward in that for the first time schools would be
    held accountable for whether they prepare students for college and career
    instead of just for taking tests. But, there is a critical missing element both
    from the current system and from SB 547, namely measuring the growth of
    individual students. If NCLB is ever reauthorized or when a NCLB waiver process
    comes out this fall it is almost certain that the feds will require states to
    measure the year-to-year growth of individual students or some measure of value
    added. Measuring individual student growth ensures that schools are held
    accountable for the progress that they help students make and not the
    demographics of the school as the current state and federal systems do.
    Colorado has shown how to do this better than anyone. Take a look at a paper
    that I coauthor recently if you want to understand the finer points of student
    growth models (
    Until California starts measuring individual student growth it will not be able
    to integrate its state and federal systems.

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  6. We can’t even get proper data from Dataquest, link here:
    Several years ago we were able to click: “level” as “Individual School” and  click “Subject” “Student Demographics” and choose “Special Education” among the selections.  While LAUSD is touting Parent Choice, those of us with students identified with disabilities cannot access individual “enrollment by disability” information anymore.  It used to be available, but now is not.  I’d asked why it was no longer available over three years ago and was told that individual schools were not providing “accurate data” for this.  Why, then does the site publish all the other data, but not this?  wouldn’t all data be suspect if concerned about this one area?  I was not given an answer to that question, but was reassured that the “special education” information by “individual school” would be available within the year.   That was over two years ago and I’m still waiting.
    We cannot compare charter enrollment to typical neighborhood public schools now.  How are we to know if a charter is “disability friendly” (as many are not) unless we can see the data?  Their “accountability” methods so far seem to be discrimination of students with moderate to severe disabilities.  I’ve collected LAUSD charter enrollment for several years and it has always been the case.  They can’t fudge the lack of enrollment…it’s just not there.  Backed by submission of Annual Service Plans to the state showing the types of services provided by each and every school shows that charters have fewer services.  When combining these facts with the enrollment data – it is absolute proof that they are “selective” in enrollment.
    If charters take public funds, they should take ALL children, not just the ones they WANT.  There should be stronger oversight and reviews of charters regarding students with moderate to severe disabilities.  Only until they are enrolling students with disabilities in similar percentages as their neighborhood schools can we even think of looking to them as “learning labs”?  They suck needed funds from schools that are teaching all children, then tout themselves as educational innovators.
    No one can make thoughtful decisions about their children without access to proper data.  Restore the “individual school/special education student demographics” data and let us see how fair and equitable schools are.

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  7. I wish articles about CA’s AYP and API would include the following information:

    For the 10-11 school year, the AYP targets for California were in the high 60′s.  So when 3169 of our Title 1 schools are failing, it is because less than 70% of their students (either schoolwide or in a sub-group) are proficient in a subject area.  

    The AYP targets in 03-04 (when only 1200 schools were failing) were around 20% proficient.  So a school could have 80% of its students less than proficient and still not be considered failing.

    The API bar of 800 has not changed in the last 8 years.  Schools with API’s of 800 often have only 60-70% of their students proficient – said another way, 30-40% of students at an 800 API school are not proficient.

    The question is, what level of proficiency do we want for our students?  Most agree we won’t ever achieve 100% proficiency.  But I hope we feel that something greater than 60-70% is possible – and what our students deserve.

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  8. Any measure of the growth of individual students needs to involve the same test taken twice – ie, the 3rd grade test taken at the beginning of 3rd and the end of 3rd, not comparing the percentile on the 2nd grade test with the percentile on the 3rd grade test.

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  9. Part of our problem is the obsession with ranking, scoring, standardizing, unifying, defining too much about schools.  Whatever formula we adopt will create winners and losers, but with more information, more formulas, more ways of looking at a school, district, or state, the more we can see the complexities. 

    Forgive me for repeating one of my favorite examples here, but an EdSector study of Florida high schools found that one school with a state report card grade of “D” was doing a better job than an “A” school in preparing students for college.  Should we adopt one measure, then?  I don’t think so.  I don’t even think it’s necessary to claim that we have a legitimate ranking or rating of schools. 

    People who disagree with me might ask how we know if we’re succeeding or not if we’re not willing to compare.  I’d say comparisons are fine, but subjective decisions leading to rigid formulas, and misplaced certainty about the meaning of those formulas, will not really establish whether or not we’re succeeding.  I think accountability works best at the most immediate, localized level.  My greatest sense of accountability as a teacher comes from my students and their families, my fellow teachers, my administrators, and the local community.  Beyond that, I feel accountable to my professional peers beyond my school, and then finally to the state or country.  I think schools will function best when the accountability they focus on is most localized. 

    Let the state, districts, and schools provide all sorts of information, and let the schools report to the parents and community on how they’re performing based on that variety of information.  Indexes and rankings shorten and over-simplify what could be a much more productive and healthy discussion of what’s going on in schools.  I also wonder if, in some cases, high ratings might give some schools and communities reason to be complacent.

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