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The Riehl World- How California Rates Schools: Color Me Blue

By Richard Riehl

Twenty years ago the California State Legislature passed the Public Schools Accountability Act, leading to the creation of an Academic Performance Index. Each year, every public school was to be assigned an API score, ranging from 200 to 1000, to measure its success. Proficiency in English and Math, based on standardized test scores, were the primary measures of a school’s API.

The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, passed by Congress, was for all school children to become proficient in English and Math by 2014.

After the failure of both of these well-intentioned efforts, the California State Board of Education teamed up with the California Department of Education to launch still another plan to measure the quality of public schools.

School ratings have been expanded to include absenteeism/suspension, graduation rate, college/career readiness, and English Learner Progress. The California School Dashboard and System of Support uses a rainbow of colors to show student progress in each of those areas.

The ratings begin at the top with blue, followed by green, yellow, orange, and red. Colors are assigned for the entire school, as well as for each subgroup of students by ethnicity, socioeconomically disadvantaged, disabled, and English learners. A group with fewer than 30 students is colored gray.

In a December 12 article in the San Diego Union Tribune, Annual state ratings assign colors for how schools, student groups performed in several categories, reporter Kristen Taketa writes, “Some critics of the Dashboard said it’s harder to compare school performance because there isn’t a single, summative rating. Steve Green, director of assessment, accountability and evaluation in the San Diego county office of education, said the dashboard helps people see an overall picture of a school, just as a doctor looks at more than a patient’s blood pressure when evaluating how healthy they are.”

That got me to thinking about how my primary doctor, might use those same colors, rather than lab reports with strange sounding names, to rate my condition.

Judging from the numbers I’ve seen after past checkups, here’s my own assessment. After I began taking Lipitor, my Cholesterol, following years in the orange to yellow zone, has risen to green. I’m assigning green to my eyesight, too, since I need reading glasses. But I’m most thankful my weight and blood pressure have earned solid blues.

Now, if I could persuade Kaiser Permanente to provide me with annual color-coded reports on my health, I’m sure it would make me feel better about myself and spur me on to even better health.

And that appears to be the goal of the California Dashboard, to make students and their schools feel better about themselves. But let’s be real. We know the meaning of those colors. They match the A-F grading system. Students know that, too. Let’s take a look at the California Dashboard’s College/Career Readiness category for the San Marcos Unified School District.

There are 21,000 students from kindergarten through adult enrolled in San Marcos schools. Thirty-nine percent are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, either qualifying for free or reduced cost meals, or children of parents or guardians without high school diplomas. The Dashboard has assigned this group to Orange, a grade of “D” for being prepared for college or a career.

Getting away from a single-score API is a good thing. But replacing it with color coding student groups and the school overall simply hides the reality that a student’s success in the classroom can largely be predicted by groups  what happens to them before they enter the classroom. Rather than coming up with new ways to judge schools, it’s time to recognize that schools alone will never be able to leave no child behind.

The Riehl World
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