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Multiple Indicators Work Only When Schools Can Learn From Them

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The California State Board of Education is poised to adopt a multiple indicator accountability system on Thursday.  It would replace the discredited and discarded single number Academic Performance Index.  That would be a huge step forward for California's schools and their students.

State board members, and particularly board President Michael Kirst, have withstood unreasonable pressure to create an über index number that somehow blends all the underlying numbers.  Good for them. 

A single indicator fails on several counts.  Its "soup" hides rather than reveals the important ingredients.  A single indicator leads to simplistic, often erroneous classifications of schools, and blanket shaming instead of targeted assistance.  More than a decade of experience clearly points to the role that a single indicator plays in narrowing and dumbing down the curriculum.  The very presence of a single indicator makes everyone—from economists to student advocates—intellectually lazy, and the needed critique of schools becomes stunted.

But if a multiple indicator system is only a bunch of numbers or colored boxes, it is not that much better than a single number.  The value in a multiple indicator system lies in whether schools learn from interacting with their own data.

Fortunately, California has some valuable experience to build on.  The eight districts that comprise the CORE partnership enroll more than 1-million students.  They've been collecting data and creating multiple indicators for several years.  CORE data are already helping both the state and the nation.

For example, the CORE districts count chronic absences, which the state does not.  Through understanding the implications of chronic absences for student achievement, California is likely to add it to its list of indicators statewide.  CORE data were also powerful in getting the U.S. Department of Education to change the regulations on the size of student subgroups that needed to be counted so that smaller groups of students don't get lost in school averages.  And CORE with its research partner, Policy Analysis for California Education, has shown that schools that are lagging on one measurement are not necessarily lagging on all of them.  A school that is still low performing may be rapidly improving in achievement.

The CORE districts have asked the State Board for what is called a "research pilot" that will allow them to collect and be evaluated on a somewhat broader list of measurements than other schools in the state.  CORE district schools would collect all the required data in the new indicator system.  They would add measurements that they have developed, such as Social and Emotional Learning and School Climate.

And—here's the important part—they will continue to research how schools work with and learn from the data.  "The idea of the research pilot is that you have districts that are willing to innovate.  Let them keep doing their thing, as long as there is a strong [research] infrastructure so that we can learn from it," said Heather Hough, executive director of the CORE-PACE research partnership.

The pilot may need a waiver would become part of the plan that California is required to submit to the U.S. Department of Education next spring.  While the State Board doesn't have to approve it this week, its members could indicate the value of this unique collaboration and its willingness to have it continue. 

They should.


(Full disclosure:  While I have no economic or institutional connection to CORE or the data partnership, PACE is a content partner with 'On California.')


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