Goodbye, API: Get ready for rough transition to better system of measuring schools

Say farewell to the API as you know it. Welcome to new era of accountability, with at least a couple years of confusion in between.
The release Thursday of the results on the state’s Academic Performance Index marks the end of a decade of judging student performance based on test scores alone. Within three years, California will have moved to a very different system in which scores on the newly introduced Common Core assessments and other state standardized tests will be but one spectrum in the prism for evaluating schools and districts.
There will be new, multiple measures that could include high school and middle school graduation rates, rates of absenteeism, reclassification of English learners, passage on Advanced Placement exams or a mix of other indicators.
How these measures will fit together – and whether they can even be combined coherently in one index ­– will be the State Board of Education’s challenge.
The Legislature gave the board until October 2015 to solve it in the law establishing the Local Control Funding Formula, passed in June. By then, it must approve three sets of evaluation criteria that will replace the sole reliance on various standardized tests, including the California Standards Test and high school exit exam, that currently comprise the API (see accompanying story). These “rubrics” will be used by districts to evaluate their own academic progress and by county offices of education and the state superintendent of public instruction to determine if districts and schools could use support or more serious forms of intervention.
The measurements will be drawn from eight priority areas that legislators cited in passing the funding formula  (see sidebar). Some of those – student achievement and student engagement, for instance – can be readily quantified through test scores and rates of attendance and absenteeism, while other areas, such as parent involvement and school climate, will be harder to measure. The law gave the State Board latitude to create other indicators.
In the law laying out the Local Control Funding Formula, legislators laid out eight priority areas for evaluating the effectiveness of a school, with says to measure them. Source: charter from the Legislative Analyst’s Office report “An Overview of the Local Control Funding Formula,” July 2013 (click to clarify).In addition to the Local Control Funding Formula, a second state law is also driving changes to the API. Pushed by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and signed into law a year ago, Senate Bill 1458 requires that no more than 60 percent of the API (or whatever a new name will be) for high schools consist of test scores, leaving plenty of room for other measures. For elementary and middle schools, test scores would comprise at least 60 percent of a new accountability system.
Rough takeoff ahead
So that’s the framework for a few years from now. What’s muddy is what happens in between. It’s still unclear after weeks of negotiations among state officials what standardized tests will be administered next spring, which students and schools will take them and whether an API score will have any value at all.
Some of the answers should become clearer by Friday, if not next week, when the Senate Appropriations Committee, then the state Senate, act on a bill that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson authored and Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, sponsored. AB 484 lays out which state tests will be given, which will be suspended and which will no longer be used for state accountability purposes in the transition period, starting in 2014.
In order to save money and enable teachers to focus on the new Common Core standards, Torlakson has proposed suspending all state tests that the federal government doesn’t require for accountability purposes under the No Child Left Behind law or that are used by the California State University and some community colleges for student placement purposes.
The result would be a bare-bones API for high school, consisting only of tests in science in grade 10, 11th grade English language arts, Algebra II taken by 11th graders, and the high school exit exam. Not offered would be all of the other end-of-course exams in science, history and math, including the critical Algebra I tests given to a majority of 8th graders as well as 9th and some 10th graders. Districts could offer the exams if they want. Arun Ramanathan, the executive director of Education Trust-West, is among the advocates for minority students critical of abandoning tests that provide important information to parents on college readiness.
The API for elementary and middle schools would be stripped down to include math and English language arts in grades 3 to 8 and science in grades 5 and 8. But it’s possible that a significant portion of students statewide wouldn’t even take those tests. Instead, they would take a field or practice test on the new Common Core math and English language arts standards.
A big unknown
The creator of those new tests, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, needs the field test in order to create a valid assessment that all California students will take in the spring of 2015. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he would grant a one-year waiver to free schools that take the field test from also having to take state tests in those subjects. State test scores from the previous year would carry over for 2014 for those schools.
With this added incentive, some districts, including Long Beach Unified, Los Angeles Unified and East Side Union High School District in San Jose, want to give all of their students the field test. Their combined enrollment numbers would likely exceed Smarter Balanced’s goal of having 10 percent of students statewide take the English language arts section of the test and another 10 percent take the math.
Whether Duncan would grant a waiver to a wide swath of schools, whether the state would pay for the additional field tests and whether exempting large numbers of students from taking state tests would void the API next year are all unknowns – and the subject of ongoing negotiations. Bonilla, state education officials and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst aren’t commenting on them, for now.

There are other uncertainties:
AB 484 will also outline the time frame for developing new state tests. New Common Core-aligned tests must be designed for high school math courses and for English learners. The expected adoption by the State Board in November of the multi-state Next Generation Science Standards, replacing California’s science standards, requires new science tests. All of these would cost unappropriated money – and would have to be approved by a governor who doesn’t like spending more dollars on tests.
The first scores from the new Smarter Balanced tests will be available in 2015, but it will take at least two or three years before the results can meaningfully be used for accountability purposes, Kirst said. And most experts are saying that, between new rigorous standards and challenging assessments, the public should brace for initially low scores.
A new accountability system combining brand new tests and non-test-based measures will make it implausible to align scores under the old API with whatever the emerging system is called.
David Plank, executive director of the nonpartisan research center Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, welcomes the clean break from the past. The “Affluent Parent Index,” as he calls the API, is rooted in low-quality multiple-choice tests, and family incomes are predictive of the scores. The new Common Core assessments hold the promise of guiding teachers to teach differently and students to think critically. The new, non-test measures will give a more complete picture of a school.
That at least is the promise of the future. What happens in the transition will, in all likelihood, be messy.
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