The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at maya@voiceofsandiego.org.

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On Sept. 18, California must submit its draft plan spelling out how it will comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The plan will lay out how the state will implement standards, assess students, hold schools and districts accountable and execute assistance programs to needy students.

The Learning CurveEvery Student Succeeds replaces the No Child Left Behind Act as the federal law of the land. It was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, and goes into full effect in the 2017-2018 year.

Under the law, states have to submit accountability plans to the Department of Education. States can pick their own goals, but they must address proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency and graduation rates. The plans must also incorporate at least one more indicator of the state’s choice. Those could include things like student engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework, post-secondary readiness or school climate.

The new law differs from No Child Left Behind in several ways. It doesn’t set numerical achievement targets nor does it mandate how states should intervene if a school falls short. Every Student Succeeds gives states more leeway to set their own goals and forms of accountability.


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States must identify and intervene in schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state. They also need to intervene when a school’s graduation rate falls below 67 percent.

The state’s draft relies heavily on the new California School Dashboard, and includes a wide range of accountability measures like college and career readiness, suspension rates and chronic absenteeism in addition to the three indicators mandated by the federal law.

The dashboard is a new data tool put into place after the passage of new state education policy in 2011, the Local Control Funding Formula, intended to track schools’ performance and progress. It uses a series of indicators for each school, like test scores, suspension rates, graduation rates, etc. and measures school performance through little colored circles. Red signifies the lowest performance; blue signifies the highest level of achievement. Orange, yellow and green are in between.

Education advocates in California, and even an independent review of California’s draft, find the state’s plan lacking, particularly in how it identifies low-performing schools and students, and how it would support those schools. Some education experts even suggest the plan doesn’t comply with federal standards.

An independent review by Bellwether Education Partners found that while California set high academic goals for students and would use high-quality standards and assessments, the plan is vague when it comes to the interventions for low-performing schools. The report also questioned the dashboard and the extent to which it could help California identify its lowest-performing schools.

For example, while California looks at indicators like chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness, the state hasn’t really said what those terms mean. What the state takes into account when it shows a colored circle next to the college and career readiness is not clear, according to the report.

The dashboard also doesn’t easily allow you to compare your school or district to another, nor does it rank schools, making it more difficult to identify the lowest-performing schools statewide.

In the draft plan, schools that merit a red ranking across all measures, or all red with one orange category, will be flagged for intervention. But by that criteria, the state will only be able to identify one-third of the schools that would make up the lowest 5 percent.

The State Board of Education has deferred until January 2018 to make a final decision on how to identify the rest of the bottom 5 percent of schools.

The Bellwether report said the way the dashboard pulls together data makes it hard to differentiate how schools are doing overall and could potentially hide schools’ underperformance. For example, if a school has low test scores, but also has low suspension rates, it might be able to avoid being placed in the lowest-performing category.

That could have unintended consequences, according to the report, like encouraging schools to opt for in-school punishment rather than suspensions to keep that number low. Those students still may not be in class learning, and the school may be able to avoid being scrutinized for other weaknesses.

The report also called into question how the state measures growth. The current method doesn’t capture individual students’ improvement over time, but instead shows year-over-year changes at the school level, which means that a school can improve its performance simply by altering its population.

VOSD’s Mario Koran wrote about one of the risks of measuring growth this way a few weeks ago, when he found that many of San Diego Unified’s lowest-performing students were transferring out of the district into charter schools, particularly to schools that help at-risk students recover credits so they can graduate. That helped keep San Diego Unified’s graduation rates high, but raises questions as to whether the district is actually making strides in helping struggling students succeed.

Educational equity advocates have additional concerns.

Robert Manwaring, a senior education policy and fiscal adviser at Children Now, an Oakland-based nonprofit, said the plan also doesn’t address federal requirements to look at interim progress in underperforming schools.

Manwaring also raised concerns that the dashboard sets low expectations. For example, he said, the state has said it’s OK to maintain a yellow on the dashboard without triggering intervention, but for some academic measurements, yellow actually means a school is about three grade levels behind.

“They’ve set some really low standards,” he said.

Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based education advocacy organization, said he is concerned about the lack of information on what interventions would actually look like.

“It’s still alarmingly unclear how the state will support schools that need improvements,” Smith said.

David Sapp, deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for the California education board, questioned the Bellwether report’s critiques last week in the Los Angeles Times.

Just because something isn’t in the plan, Sapp told the Times, doesn’t mean the state isn’t going to do it.

California Board of Education President Mike Kirst told the Times that the California School Dashboard is plenty clear.

The Department of Education will ultimately decide whether California’s plan is adequate. While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been a vocal supporter of local control over education, the department under her leadership has taken a “surprisingly hard-line approach” to carrying out Every Student Succeeds, according to the New York Times.

If the state and Department of Education can’t agree, it could mean years of back-and-forth – essentially a bureaucratic hold-up that could make it difficult to get a solid accountability system into place for California schools.

Local Ed Stories

• VOSD’s Ashly McGlone wrote about what we still don’t know about layoffs at San Diego Unified.

• President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this week that would reinstate the ability of local agencies, like school police, to receive military equipment. Back in 2014, San Diego Unified procured a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle through the program that Trump just reinstated. (The 74, KPBS)

• San Diego County took in the most refugees in California last fiscal year, and has long been a destination for people escaping war or persecution in other countries. inewsource takes a deep dive into how San Diego schools grapple with educating refugee students.

• Many schools across the county are shortening school days at schools without adequate air conditioning amid the heat wave. (NBC 7)

Other Ed News

• The California Department of Education was supposed to release math and reading test scores this week. Data issues have pushed the release to September. (EdSource)

• The former superintendent of the tiny Centinela Valley Union High School District earned $663,000 in 2014. The Daily Breeze won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for its reporting on his exorbitant salary, excessive perks and campaign donations from a construction firm that seemed to benefit from all the district’s construction projects. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed 12 felony counts for embezzlement, misappropriation of public funds, grand theft and conflict-of-interest against the superintendent this week. (Daily Breeze)

• Biases against urban schools are prompting parents to move away from city school systems, exacerbating segregation. (The Atlantic)

• EdSource put together a useful FAQ breaking down Common Core standards in California.

• In November, California voters approved a $9 billion school construction measure, but the state hasn’t spent any of that money yet. (Sacramento Bee)

• Student internships turned around a Chicago school that was on the verge of closing. (The Atlantic)

• Hurricane Harvey is upending the Texas public school system. Not only have hundreds of schools been closed, but schools that remain open in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio now have to grapple with what to do with the families and children who fled the storm. (New York Times)

• Los Angeles Unified is trying to promote better district-charter collaboration by making changes to how traditional schools and charters share space and best education practices. (EdSource)

• A new report shows that later school start times could contribute $10.2 billion to California’s economy. (RAND Corporation)

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, School Performance

    Written by Maya Srikrishnan

    Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about K-12 education with a focus on equity. She can be reached at maya.srikrishnan@voiceofsandiego.org.

    7 comments
    mike murphy
    mike murphy

    it stopped being about education and  all about money long ago

    Dennis James
    Dennis James subscriber

    NCLB was not great but it made it difficult to hide schools’ underperformance. I fear politicians and unions want very much to return to hiding schools’ underperformance.

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    Isn't it time to get rid of pretend accountability and stop these expensive tap dances? We're forcing our public school system to get creative by farming out kids to private education and putting kids in on line diploma factories. 

    We're obviously either unable or unwilling to address the problems of non-accountability and special interest induced gridlock in our education system so how about changing things up a bit? We could graduate any kid that attends school 70% of the time for 4 years.A financial incentive could be included giving kids money for better than 70% attendance. Think of it, no more culturally biased testing, no class warfare, no stress on kids to compete and more importantly no valuation of public education's efforts. Couple the previous examples with eliminating hundreds of government employee cubicle hamsters that keep all the stats and we have a win - win. Don't concern yourselves with life after graduation for the kids, legislating lifestyles will follow post haste.

    Dennis James
    Dennis James subscriber

    @philip piel Don't you think high school graduation should be related to knowledge gained and not attendance?

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    @Dennis James @philip piel


    Yes Dennis I do but I appear to be in the minority. My proposal is not my ideal fix for public education however it seems to be the only logical solution. Having meaningful change in public education happen requires buy in from union special interest who resist any attempt at accountability and quantifying their product.

    Going round and round with excuses for failure like "hunger" and "culture" all the while lowering the bar in the name of fairness is a gross disservice to students, tax payers and our country. Instead of more window dressing in the form of time, effort and money spent by government employees in coming up with and administering yet another program that goes nowhere why not give state government a break and not only save money but have 90+% graduation rates?

    Dennis, we stopped caring about effort years ago, results not the ability to compete is now a basic right and in the interest of fairness we should not discriminate against those that don't meet unfair and culturally biased hurdles in order to graduate, it's rude. 

    Alan Underwood
    Alan Underwood

    The whole point of the dashboard was to remove the comparative model in education. Instead this allows each school to focus on their strengths and weakness as it applies to that school. The school I teach is constantly regarded as a high performing school, and based on the old model that was easy to show. Now that we have the new dashboard and it goes beyond test schools and lowers the threshold for a "significant subgroup" more students are being counted in more ways. This, I think, is a step in the right direction. We need to move away from standardized tests to measure student achievement.