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API school test scores expected to vanish in California for 2 years — maybe forever

Real estate agents use them to tout the desirability of neighborhoods. Parents monitor them to choose schools. Principals live and die by them. But the API, the cornerstone of California’s K-12 accountability system, has suddenly vanished.

API school test scores expected to vanish in California for 2 years — maybe forever

Jan. 24, 2014


Real estate agents use them to tout the desirability of neighborhoods. Parents monitor them to choose schools. Principals live and die by them.

But Academic Performance Index scores, the cornerstone of the state’s accountability system in K-12 education, are expected to take a two-year sabbatical beginning this year. And when the API scores return — assuming they do — they’ll be a markedly different beast. What form they will take is a big unknown.

Fourth graders at Pennekamp Elem. in Manhattan Beach take standardized tests. Foreground ID is Sloane Harp. Photo by Brad Graverson/Thursday, Jan 24, 2014/The Daily Breeze
Fourth graders at Pennekamp Elem. in Manhattan Beach take standardized tests. Foreground ID is Sloane Harp. Photo by Brad Graverson/Thursday, Jan 24, 2014/The Daily Breeze

This could come as a rude awakening to the California public, which has become almost as familiar with the term “API” as Americans have long been with acronyms like GPA and P.E.

“The general public and parents and even the Realtors — they have no idea,” said Bill Lucia, executive director of the education advocacy group EdVoice. “People are going to be very confused.”

The change also promises to be challenging for educators.

“I’m really leaning on my department chairs to make sure instruction continues to be challenging,” said Mitzi Cress, principal of the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula High. “But the fear is not knowing. It’s a bit like being blind — you’re moving forward and you think you’re doing well … but you never know until those test scores come out and now we don’t have that.”

Assigned to schools every fall (usually in late August) based on the performance of students on a handful of springtime tests, the API boils the academic performance of entire schools to a number ranging from 200 to 1,000. In a sense, it’s the equivalent of an A through F letter grade for any given school, inviting easy comparisons between and among schools, with the state-set goal of 800 amounting to a B, and anything above 900 in elite territory.

That’s about to change.

“The whole rating system based on performance of the California Standards Tests, and the scaling system based on 800 — that is history,” said Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and the president of the California State Board of Education. “So the real estate agents will have to get into some new concepts.”

Kirst acknowledges that it isn’t yet known what the API will look like — or even if there will be an API — on the other side of the two-year break.

Why the murkiness? Put simply, the California public school system is awash in historic reforms — from the curricula that must be taught and tested to the way schools are funded — and state policymakers haven’t gotten around to deciding whether the API in its current (or any) iteration should remain the benchmark for success.

“The whole world has just changed,” Kirst said. “Figuring out accountability with this is something that the board has to do by 2015.”

He added that the changes in education are so vast that it is impossible for the board to address them all simultaneously.

“There’s just so much new policy it’s mind-boggling,” he said. “You have to approach it one conceptual domain at a time.”

Valid or not, arguments about complexity do little to mollify the advocacy groups who view the lack of data as a way to keep the public in the dark about the performance of its own schools.

“What it says to me is the state is just not interested in letting parents be a part of this process,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director at Parent Revolution. “How can we be a part of school improvement if we’re not getting any information about how schools are doing?”

Chief among the landmark education reforms underway is an approaching tidal wave: new content standards, which amount to a description of what students are expected to learn at each grade level.

Come fall of 2014, the California content standards — the guidepost for K-12 instruction in the Golden State since the late 1990s, will be fully replaced by Common Core — a nationwide set of content standards that aim to put a premium on critical-thinking skills over rote memorization.

Replacing the standards also means overhauling the system of assessments. Until now, students every spring have been sharpening their pencils for the STAR tests (for Standardized Testing and Reporting), which measure their grasp of the state standards.

In their place will be a system called Smarter Balance, (also referred to as Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress, or MAPP) which will swap out the old pencil-in-the-bubble exams for math and English with computerized tests. Students in grades 3-8 and 11 will take the tests this year on a trial basis. (For parents, the switch means that, for the first time in years, the state will not mail them the individual results of their children’s performance on the springtime exams.)

API changes

To smooth the transition of this huge undertaking, state lawmakers last fall passed Assembly Bill 484, which ends the STAR tests. AB 484 also provides the authority to the state Board of Education to suspend API scores for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years — a decision expected to be made at its March meeting.

This is a big disappointment to Kimberly Vawter, an assistant principal at Valor Academy Charter School in the San Fernando Valley, who teaches a middle-school class that encourages students to look at API scores when selecting a high school.

“We are very big right now in (the Los Angeles Unified School District) on school choice,” she said. “Now I feel like we are giving them a choice without giving them any information.”

If the API continues to exist — and most education watchers believe it will — the qualities it measures will be markedly less based on testing, at least in the high schools.

Under a little-known law passed in 2012, the test-score quotient of the API for high schools can be no more than 60 percent by 2016-17. To date, the API — though the product of a complex formula — has been derived 100 percent from the performance of students on tests.

Soon, in the high schools, 40 percent of the API must be based on other metrics. The specifics have yet to be hashed out, but the new components are likely to include graduation rates, dropout rates and college-and-career readiness benchmarks.

The bill’s author, Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, hails it as a major step toward moving beyond an era that tempts instructors to teach to the test.

“The API to me is not an end, it’s a means to an end,” he said. “We’re trying to create a jolt to the system that leads to curriculum being taught in ways that are both rigorous and relevant to what people might want to do with their lives.”

His bill actually has a supporter in Parent Revolution, which believes it strikes the right balance between one extreme (over-reliance on test scores) and the other (no information at all).

“Some people think test scores are the only thing that matter — we fought against that regime,” said Rose of Parent Revolution, a group best known for its advocacy of the parent-trigger law allowing parents to convert underperforming public schools into charter schools. “But we also believe they need to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Some aren’t so certain that diluting the influence of test scores on the API is a step in the right direction. Paul Warren, a research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California, says that on the one hand, it’s a more holistic way of measuring a school’s performance. On the other, he said, it leads to more ambiguity.

“When these other things are incorporated, you don’t exactly know what it means when scores are high or low,” Warren said. “It gets more complicated.”

Lucia of EdVoice puts it more bluntly.

“It’s a muddled mess right now,” he said. “It’s like mixing a bunch of colors — you’re just going to get brown.”

Further diluting focus on test scores is an obscure provision of a new school funding formula approved this past summer by the state Legislature. The overhaul — a brainchild of Gov. Jerry Brown known as the Local Control Funding Formula — not only shifts more money to school districts with high numbers of disadvantaged students, it also grants local school districts more autonomy in spending.

Somewhat paradoxically, in order to earn this local control, all school districts are required by the state to create a “local control accountability plan” that demonstrates how their schools will meet expectations in eight priority areas set by the state.

API scores in and of themselves don’t even make up one of these eight areas. Instead, they’ve been relegated to one of several bullet points under the priority titled Student Achievement. Other priorities include Student Engagement, Parental Involvement, Course Access and Implementation of Common Core.

State educators point out that the accountability plans pertain to a new, local layer of accountability, not the statewide one long associated with STAR testing. But even local school administrators are confused about what role it will play, not to mention a little annoyed at the fuzzy plan for its rollout.

Tim Stowe, chief academic officer of the Torrance Unified School District, notes that while the deadline for local districts to submit their local-control plans is July, the state won’t release the rubric for how those plans will be evaluated until October 2015.

“These timelines are out of whack,” he said. “It’s ludicrous.”

If school administrators are confused about what is around the corner, the general public isn’t even aware major change is afoot.

“When I talk about this to friends of mine who have kids … they are hearing about it for the first time,” said John Lee, executive director of the advocacy group Teach Plus. “To them, it doesn’t pass the smell test that we’re moving into this phase where, for three years, there is not going to be any accountability system in place.”

But Kirst believes the end result of a more holistic picture will be worth the growing pains.

“Schools are complex and have many dimensions,” he said. “To have everything hinge on a single test taken on a single day is too narrow.”