How California’s school ‘dashboard’ obscures poor performance

When then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature created the Local Control Funding Formula a decade ago, their professed goal was to close the achievement gap separating poor and English-learner K-12 students from their more privileged contemporaries by providing more targeted instructional money.

Education reform and civil rights groups applauded the effort but worried aloud about Brown’s unwillingness to provide accountability for whether the extra spending would, in fact, narrow the gap. He said he trusted local school officials to do the right thing.

The education establishment liked Brown’s hands-off attitude but the criticism continued. Several years later, the state school board responded with a “dashboard.”  Schools and school districts would receive color-coded grades on a variety of factors, of which proficiency in language arts, math and other academic skills would have parity with other less important areas.

Critics remained skeptical — with good reason.

“Under this system, districts can escape notice or attention simply by shining in categories that are less than academic and whose outcomes they control,” said Chad Aldeman, whose Boston-based nonprofit Bellwether cited the dashboard’s shortcomings after the first one published six years ago.

CalMatters analyzed the results, and reported that “dozens of California school systems with some of the state’s worst test scores and biggest academic achievement gaps won’t get any extra help this year” because positive scores in non-academic factors outweighed poor academic results.

“If extremely low, declining performance on math and reading exams alone were enough to trigger state support, the number of California districts that could expect it would almost double from 228 to more than 400,” then-K-12 reporter Jessica Calefati wrote at the time.

“The analysis also revealed that well over 100,000 students across the state belong to key demographic subgroups that scored poorly on the test but won’t get help. The disparity for students in the Latino subgroup with poor test results is especially stark: More than 95% are missing out on extra state support.”

The dashboard postings were suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, but last week a new version was released with upbeat comments from state education officials. They cited improved absenteeism and high school graduation rates but scarcely mentioned that overall academic scores remain subpar, and the achievement gap is fundamentally as wide as ever despite billions of dollars in extra aid.

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