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California Accountability System

In April 1999, California passed the Public Schools Accountability Act (PSAA), the brainchild of newly elected Governor Gray Davis. The PSAA has three major components.

First, the Academic Performance Index (API) provides individual schools with a numerical score. It was intended that this be based on multiple measures of performance, e.g., test scores, dropout rates, and attendance rates. For the time being, however, the API is based exclusively on student test scores.

Second, the rewards program called the High Performing-Improving Schools Program (HP/ISP) awards schools and staff monetary bonuses if they meet or surpass API growth targets. The third component is the Immediate Intervention-Underperforming Schools Program (II/USP) that allows the state to intervene in schools that fail to meet targets for improving test scores. The intervention-program portion of the legislation also included sanctions, such as state takeover of individual schools, and monetary grants to pay for the interventions.

Every year, local school boards must issue a School Accountability Report Card for each school within the district. Each report card must include the most recent three years of testing data for student achievement by grade level in reading, writing, arithmetic, and other academic goals. Secondary school report cards will also list the percentage of seniors taking the SAT college admissions test and their average score on the test.

Also reported are dropout rates and suspension and expulsion rates, plus progress toward reducing class size. Finally, the report cards list the number of days of staff development and the number of teachers with regular credentials, emergency credentials, without credentials, and teachers working outside their areas of competence. The local board must send these accountability report cards to all parents.

The Academic Peformance Index

From 1999–2001, the state calculated the API using only scores from the Stanford-9 standardized test. The State Board of Education chose the Stanford-9, which is a multiple-choice, nationally norm-referenced examination, to be the state's assessment device in 1997, several years before passage of the new accountability law. A norm-referenced test is a standardized exam that compares student performance within California to a national sample of students who have taken the same exam.

When using only Stanford-9 results, the state Department of Education calculated a score ranging from a low of 200 to a high of 1,000 for each school. The interim statewide API target for all schools is 800. The state Department of Education also ranked schools on a one-to-10 scale with 10 being the best. The department uses a separate “similar schools” ranking to compare schools having similar demographic characteristics. These various features will continue under the new assessment exams.

Schools scoring below 800 must close the gap between their current score and the state performance target by at least five percent to meet their growth target for the year. For example, if a school's 1999 Academic Performance Index score was 500, the school's growth target would be (800-500) * five percent = 15 points.12 This formula, however, results in growth targets so modest that for many schools meeting the state's target score of 800 would take years, if not decades.

Each numerically significant ethnic or socio-economically disadvantaged subgroup at a school (that constitutes at least 15 percent of the school's total pupil population and consists of at least 30 students) must have a growth target of 80 percent of the school's growth target. Thus, if a school's growth target was 15 points, each numerically significant subgroup at the school must improve by at least 80 percent of 15 points, i.e., by 12 points.

Rewards and Sanctions

The rewards portion of the accountability system includes several programs that are triggered when schools meet their growth targets and subgroup targets and have 95 percent of their students taking the Stanford-9 in grades K–8 and 90 percent taking the exam in grades 9–11. One program, the Governor's Performance Awards, sends state grants to individual school-site councils, which have the discretion to use the funds as they see fit.

In addition, state grants from the School Site Employee Performance Bonus program are to be divided equally among school site councils and all school site staff. Finally, the Certificated Staff Performance Incentives program targets staff at low-performing schools that have the highest growth rates. The program awards $25,000 bonuses to 1,000 staff statewide, $10,000 bonuses to 3,750 staff members, and $5,000 bonuses to 7,500 staff members.

In 2000–01, the state allocated $860 million to support the rewards, sanctions, and testing components of the accountability system. Since then, however, large state budget deficits forced the deferral of rewards funding in 2001–02 to 2002–03. Given the looming deficits in the coming years, it is difficult to predict when the rewards funding will be restored on an ongoing basis.

The II/USP intervention program originally applied to those schools that scored below the 50th percentile on the Stanford-9. More than 3,100 schools fell into this category. The state changed the program in 2000. Now schools that rank in the lower half of the Academic Performance Index and fail to meet their growth targets are eligible to apply for state interventionary assistance. Under these requirements, 938 schools were eligible. Once eligible, however, not all low-performing schools become part of the intervention program. (In 2006 a bill was introduced to address under performing districts.)

Participation is voluntary and schools must apply. From this pool, state officials select only 430 schools each year. As a result, many low-performing schools either do not apply or are not selected for the program. For example, in 2000–01, of the 938 eligible schools, only 532 applied for the 430 slots. In other words, 406 eligible low-scoring schools voluntarily decided not to apply, and of those that did 102 were not selected. As of early 2003, 1,288 schools are participating in the II/USP program.

Student Incentives

Under California's accountability law, there is little incentive for students to do their best on the state tests. Sanctions do not fall on them if they fail to perform well on the exam, although a bill passed in 2000 did allot increased funds for students who did well on the standards-aligned portion of the Stanford-9. Some commentators say that high-schoolers' scores are as low as they are because students give only a token effort when taking the state tests such as the Stanford-9, since they suffer no repercussions for such half-hearted behavior. This is not the case with the high school exit exam, where students may not receive their high-school diplomas if they fail to pass the exam.

Indeed, in interviews with the San Francisco Chronicle, high-school students said that they do not care how they score on the state's standardized tests, with most giving minimal effort or randomly filling in the bubbles on the answer sheets.

Elena Moss, a sophomore at Berkeley High School, told the newspaper that: “The state tests make no difference in our lives. It's not like the high school exit exam, or the SAT . . . something that matters for our futures.”

Another student said: “After our teacher told us the test didn't affect our grades, people just started bubblin' in whatever. I got through it in 10 minutes.”

State officials admit that they have no idea if students' lack of motivation is undermining the accountability system.

Do we need intervention or relief for low-performing schools?

By Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee, March 22, 2006

When California school districts get themselves into financial trouble - an increasing trend, unfortunately - there's a time-tested intervention mechanism in place.

A Bakersfield-based organization called the Fiscal Crisis and Management Team is on call to provide a troubled district with tough-love financial advice. And in a more serious situation, the state superintendent of schools may appoint a trustee, analogous to a bankruptcy receiver, to take over the district and run it until its fiscal health is restored.

These interventions are not without controversy; locally elected school boards and their appointed administrators often resent losing control. But ordinarily, outsiders step in only after a years-long pattern of fiscal mismanagement.

What happens, however, when a district's troubles are academic, rather than financial? Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, is proposing that a similar intervention system be established for school districts that persistently rank near the bottom in their students' academic achievement test scores - and his hometown district, Fresno Unified, would be the largest district that would be affected.

Fresno Unified is one of 21 districts, according to a computer analysis done for Arambula by the state Department of Education, with half or more of their students classified as being in low-performing schools based on the state's 2004 Academic Performance Index (API) scoring of state-mandated tests.

Although the state schools superintendent can intervene with individual schools that fail to meet academic improvement standards, and Superintendent Jack O'Connell cracked down on six schools the other day, there's nothing in law that covers academic failure by an entire district.

One Arambula bill would provide extra supervision for a troubled district by the county superintendent of schools, who could waive some sections of the Education Code deemed to inhibit the district's ability to raise academic performance, or redirect students who test poorly into extra classes. If a district doesn't improve its academic scores markedly, an academic trustee could be appointed to oversee teaching, or an academic administrator with broad authority to implement broad programmatic changes.

The second Arambula bill would create an Academic Crisis and Management Assistance Team, similar to the financial assistance team, to help low-performing districts raise their academic scores. Arambula says he wants to target help to districts "where it (low performance) has been going on for years" but not low-performing districts that are making demonstrable progress.

Academically troubled districts tend to have large concentrations of non-white students, especially Latinos, whose first languages are not English - with Coachella Valley Unified, which sits at the very top of the list at 99.1 percent low-performing, a classic example.

Coachella primarily serves Latino students whose parents work in the fields or fill service jobs in the lavish golf resorts, hotels, restaurants and homes of wealthy communities around Palm Springs. And the district's assistant superintendent, Bob Bailey, says that the state should overhaul its own testing procedures before cracking down on Coachella or other low-scoring districts because, he says, the tests are "very discriminatory toward people of second-language origin."

"The help we need from the state is to change the testing system," says Bailey, complaining that California, alone among the states, requires testing in English for students who have barely begun their English studies. "It takes four to seven years to teach English," he adds, pointing to Coachella's good scores for children who have been schooled in English.

Arambula is undoubtedly sincere in wanting to improve conditions for kids in the state's lowest-performing school districts, but Bailey's point about testing kids in skills that they have had only minimal time to learn, and then using the results as the basis for intervention, is equally valid. And the juxtaposition of the two exemplifies California's persistent educational quandary, one that also hangs over the state's high school exit exam; we seem to be working at cross-purposes with ourselves.

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Last modified: December 30, 2004

Disclaimer: This website is the sole responsibility of Mike McMahon. It does not represent any official opinions, statement of facts or positions of the Alameda Unified School District. Its sole purpose is to disseminate information to interested individuals in the Alameda community.