As a reporter for a small-town paper in California, I dreaded August. It was the month that the state department of education released its annual Academic Performance Index (API) rankings. Teachers, administrators, parents, and realtors live and die by the API, a somewhat ambiguous figure based on a complicated math formula that considers students’ proficiency levels on state tests. As a reporter, I felt it never told us, or the public, very much about a school’s progress over time.
But as Richard Lee Colvin writes in his new report, California has the perfect opportunity to scrap this vague measure for a more thorough—and fairer—judgment of a school’s performance. And it’s an opportunity other states should watch and take note of.
Currently, the API tends to say more about a school’s socio-economic makeup than its student achievement. For example, a school with a high percentage of English-language learners will undoubtedly have a low percentage of students proficient in English, and thus, will receive a low API—a number between 200 and 1,000. Anything above 800 is considered sufficient and those schools are lauded (and never pushed to continue improving). Anything under 800 requires state intervention or support.
I covered schools in California’s Coachella Valley—some entirely made up of English-language learners—and even when students made big gains, their schools were punished with low APIs because, overall, their level of proficiency was lower than their counterparts at affluent and all-English-speaking schools. As Colvin writes in his report, “The year-to-year changes in the API, for all the significance attached to them, actually convey no information about whether individual students are doing any better or worse.”
Instead, Colvin pushes officials to adopt an accountability measure that measures growth in student achievement over time, rather than just a one-time snapshot of academic performance. Through this model, officials can follow students, broken down by demographics, and see their progress year-to-year. Instead of telling educators they are below the prescribed 800-level API benchmark, Colvin says, this growth model would allow educators (and the public) to see where schools have (and haven’t) made gains, so they can better target their instruction.
And Colvin adds: This is the best time to make these changes, as the state shifts to Common Core State Standards and assessments, essentially “wiping the slate clean” and giving schools leeway time to adjust to these new criteria. California also has an opportunity to re-write, in essence, its accountability measures as officials apply for a federal waiver from stringent No Child Left Behind benchmarks; within this, officials could lay out a growth model to replace the API.
Read all of Colvin’s report, Measures That Matter: Why California Should Scrap the Academic Performance Index, here.