State must improve the California School Dashboard
By CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy and Education Trust–West Executive Director Ryan J. Smith
California has always been a state of dreamers and idealists. That’s part of our legacy and a reason for our success. Yet, as our state’s long trail of innovators have shown us, success takes more than ideas — it also requires careful implementation. California’s school funding model is based on a powerful idea: improve outcomes by directing more resources to high-need students and use a multiple-measure accountability system that supports local decision-making. Unfortunately, the reality of the system doesn’t match the vision.

In January, the State Board of Education heard feedback about the California School Dashboard — an online tool that shows how schools and districts are performing. The state says it’s “the next step in a series of major shifts in California K-12 schools, changes that have raised the bar for student learning, transformed testing and placed the focus on equity for all students.”

Yet, when student performance was worse than expected on the most recent state assessments, the State Board of Education didn’t raise the bar. Instead, they moved the goalposts. When flat average performance on statewide tests placed an increased number of schools in the lowest performance band (red) on the multi-colored dashboard, the state board changed the classification criteria to pull them back out. Despite the reality that many of these schools are struggling to serve one or more student groups, the board was apparently more concerned that the state would be required to provide assistance to a larger number of lower performing schools than anticipated.

This “technical fix,” as it was described, sends the wrong message to the public. It suggests the state would rather sweep these schools under the rug than take responsibility for helping them. More concerning, sugar-coating these schools’ performance could prevent educators from receiving the additional supports available to low-performing districts — supports they likely need to accelerate progress for historically underserved students.

The Dashboard does an inadequate job of defining good or acceptable performance and of providing guidance on how districts might improve. The Dashboard uses five color-coded categories (from highest to lowest: blue, green, yellow, orange and red) to display test scores, graduation rates, suspension rates, success in educating English learners, college and career preparation, and chronic absence. Many schools and districts fall into the yellow band, which is so broad that it includes schools where the average student is several years below grade level and schools where the average student is above grade level.

If one of the main goals is to highlight achievement gaps of subgroups through the Dashboard Equity Report — another important feature of the Dashboard — it also misses the mark. On its landing page, it displays only a school district’s overall performance, so users who want to view performance for specific student groups must drill down to find information that should be more readily available.

The target audience for the Dashboard is also unclear. In our view, it’s not sophisticated enough to provide detailed guidance to school districts that, by and large, have more finely calibrated internal systems to measure student progress. Yet, it’s also not user-friendly enough to help most families analyze their school’s performance or compare it to neighboring schools. So whom exactly does it serve?

In order to uphold California’s tradition of innovation and our responsibility to the state’s 6.2 million public school students, we must do better. That begins with refining the California School Dashboard to increase its focus on equity. Prioritizing equity would mean being upfront about how many schools need assistance and making equity more prominent on the Dashboard display — possibly by placing the names of student groups on the top level of the Dashboard or by creating an equity rating for each indicator. Leading with equity doesn’t mean having important information one click away from the Dashboard landing page. We say this not as opponents of the Dashboard, but as “critical friends” who are willing to speak difficult truths on important subjects.

In trying to make sense of the Dashboard, various observers have referred to it as “a report card” for California schools, school districts and county offices of education. If so, at the moment we think it deserves an incomplete grade. In order to preserve the original principles of equity in education that we intended when we adopted the Local Control Funding Formula, and to give a true picture of where California schools stand, the state should make a number of key changes to the Dashboard. First, we should more clearly communicate goals and define performance levels on the Dashboard, especially for historically underserved student groups facing opportunity and achievement gaps. Second, the state must address equity more clearly, by providing more guidance and a more robust and defined system of supports for struggling districts. Lastly, the Dashboard must be refined to better display data, including student growth and year-to-year change, to make it both accessible and actionable.

Advocates of the current Dashboard say it’s still in the early stages of design. We say that’s the best time to make changes: before the problems become entrenched and institutional inertia takes hold. It’s time to correct course and develop a school accountability system that is innovative not only in theory, but also in practice.

This commentary was first published on EdSource on Jan. 17, 2018.