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One Step Closer to a New Accountability System for California Schools?

The largest state K-12 system in the nation is reformulating its accountability system. Where are things headed for California?

A May 7 discussion at the state Board of Education may provide some key clues. The state's in the process of moving away from its traditional accountability system, which has been in place since 1999. This system uses an Academic Performance Index (API) that relies heavily on standardized tests, and produces a single score for individual schools. State officials are saying those two measures are no longer enough, and want a new accountability system to incorporate many more elements.

Any new state accountability system wouldn't be in place before the 2016-17 school year, at the earliest. 

In February, the Public School Accountability Act Advisory Committee called on the state to adopt a new accountability system that includes multiple indicators of school performance. The committee indicated that just as the state's Local Control Funding Formula, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013, uses eight state priorities to guide school funding decisions in districts, a new accountability system should measure a variety of inputs and school outcomes. 

Even as the state board mulls over a new system, however, there's no formal proposal on the table for a vote. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University, along with David Conley, a professor at the University of Oregon's College of Education, who both have advocated broader approaches to accountability, offered their views to the state board last week. I'm going to focus mostly on Darling-Hammond's testimony, in part because she has gotten plaudits from state school board President Michael Kirst for her views on accountability. And she's written extensively about it over the past year. 

'Falling Off the Top of a Cliff'

In her remarks to the board, Darling-Hammond said the key question for any accountability system and the indicators included in it should be: "Does this encourage high quality teaching and learning for all schools and all kids?" Systems should be designed to keep students from "falling off the top of a cliff," not simply rescue them after they fall, she said.

A new California accountability system should have four main elements, she told the board. It should: 

• Address the opportunity gap by giving equitable access to quality services in California schools

• Include well-developed curriculum and assessments

• Create a dashboard of multiple indicators of student and school performance—these, in turn, should lead schools to identify strategies to improve, and those strategies in turn should lead to better outcomes

• Develop professional capacity that includes good teacher preparation, professional development, and evaluation

"You can't close the achievement gap unless you also close the accountability gap," she said.

Creating a "dashboard" with multiple indicators, Darling-Hammond said, would give the state a chance to de-emphasize the role of standardized testing in its accountability system.

However, she did say that performance-based test items (questions that require more-complex answers from students) could have an extended life if they were made available for teachers to use in their classroom work, regardless of when the performance-based items were actually administered on exams. 

In that vein, it's worth pointing out that Darling-Hammond is an official adviser to the Smarter Balanced testing consortium, one of two tests produced by federally funded consortia that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. California doesn't currently require common-core test scores to be included in teacher evaluations, but some states giving Smarter Balanced, such as Maine, Nevada, and Oregon, plan to do so, as the Hechinger Report recently found.

Buried in a Blizzard

In response to Darling-Hammond's remarks, state board member Sue Burr said she was worried that a system of "multiple measures" would force districts into a "compliance mindset." Burr said that would mean districts would simply rush to check off many boxes without stopping to see which indicators provided the most useful information. 

"How do we pick indicators that we know will have a true cause and effect?" Burr asked Darling-Hammond.

Darling-Hammond responded that two of the most important of the "blizzard of indicators" available to incorporate into accountability systems are "having a full, rich curriculum" and "having it taught by well-qualified teachers." 

And those well-qualified teachers, she added, should be able to figure out which schools are doing the best work in a certain field, visit those schools to see how they are doing that work, and apply those lessons to their own classrooms. 

"Nobody should be sitting out there, looking for knowledge under rocks," Darling-Hammond told the state board.

For a fuller version of Darling-Hammond's views on accountability, you can read a paper she wrote last year with Gene Wilhoit (the former executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers) and Linda Pittenger:

  Accountability for College and Career Readiness Developing a New Paradigm


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