Los Angeles Schools: Measuring Progress

By Christina Elston

Los Angeles Schools Common CoreIf your child attends public schools, you’re likely familiar with the acronym API. The letters stand for “Academic Performance Index,” and the API was created as part of a 1999 law designed to measure the academic performance and growth of California schools.

The API is on a two-year cycle, releasing a “base” score for each school and district in the spring (based on students’ scores from state tests taken the previous spring) and a “growth” score in the fall based on scores from tests students took in the spring of that same year. For almost 15 years, parents looked to the API to tell them how their local public schools were doing. Each school gets a score from 200 to 1,000, and the state set a score of 800 as the minimum target for every school.

But no API scores have been calculated since the spring of 2014 – and it is uncertain whether any will be calculated this year.

The Role of Common Core

This is due to another educational term you’ve likely heard bandied about: Common Core. These new educational standards, which have been adopted by more than 43 states, focus on students’ critical-thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills rather than on content memorization.

The California State Board of Education adopted Common Core State Standards for math and English/language arts in 2010. In 2013, they decided on new state tests to go with the new standards, scrapping the Standardized Testing And Reporting (STAR) system and the California Standards Tests (CST) the state had been giving since 1997.

The new tests are called the Smarter Balanced Assessments, and if you have a child in grades 3-8 or grade 11 in public school, she or he will be taking them between March and June.

The Smarter Balanced Tests

Los Angeles Schools API ScoresDiane Hernandez, director of the state Department of Education’s Assessment Development and Administration Division, is optimistic about the new tests despite the fact that student performance on this initial round is expected to be less than ideal. “The new tests are aligned to very different content standards,” she explains, adding that while the CST tests focused on kids’ ability to retain facts, the Smarter Balanced tests are designed to let kids explain their thinking, and are more rigorous.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which created the new tests, predicts that 33 to 44 percent of California students will earn scores that would be considered “proficient” this spring. In the latest round of CST testing, which took place in 2013, 51 percent of students in the state tested at least proficient in math, and 56 percent in language arts. This makes education officials nervous about releasing the initial Smarter Balanced scores to parents. The education website EdSource quoted Chief Deputy State Superintendent Richard Zeiger as saying, at a State Board of Education meeting in January, “We have to educate parents about that. It’s not that your kid got dumber; there has been a shift in systems.”

Taking the Test

Teachers and students, many experts say, will need time – maybe even years – to adapt to the new standards. And students will also need time to get used to a new way of testing. Under the STAR system, students took multiple-choice tests with paper and pencil and all students answered the same questions. The Smarter Balanced assessments are Computer Adaptive Tests that students will take online, and the questions will adjust to be more or less difficult based on each student’s responses throughout the tests.

The state has been working to assist schools without the online capability to give the tests. About 300 school sites were unable to administer Smarter Balanced field tests online last year, or were only able to do so by shutting down all of their schools’ other online activities. In early January, the state announced $27 million in Broadband Infrastructure Improvement Grants to assist 227 of these sites in upgrading connectivity prior to spring testing, including around 24 in L.A. County, many of them charter schools.

Test Preparation

Teachers and schools across the state have been working for years to adapt classroom instruction to the new Common Core standards, which Hernandez says is the best preparation for the Smarter Balanced assessments. “We kind of want to get away from saying we want to prepare you for the test,” she says. Still, the state has provided educators with a digital library that Hernandez says includes 2,600 resources such as professional-development tools and lesson plans that focus on helping teachers teach Common Core standards.

Los Angeles Schools smarter balancedSmarter Balanced also offers interim assessments, tools that districts will be able to employ between rounds of testing to help them check student progress throughout the year. These include comprehensive assessments that follow the same blueprint as the yearly testing, and assessment blocks that are targeted to specific subject areas. Interim assessments weren’t available until January of this year and so won’t help with the current round of testing, but teachers could begin using them prior to the 2016 tests.

For families, the Department of Education has a practice test and a training test available to help familiarize students with Smarter Balanced at www.smarterbalanced.org/practice-test. “We always encourage parents and teachers to access those,” Hernandez says. “They can sit down and take a fifth-grade sample of math items, for instance.” The training tests will also help familiarize test-takers with the Smarter Balanced online testing features, which include an embedded calculator, a glossary, a highlighter, video tutorials about answering particular types of test questions, signing videos to assist deaf students, and other supports.

Student Scores

Smarter Balanced end-of-year tests (otherwise known as “summative assessments”) in math and English/language arts will be given when students in grades 3-8 have finished 66 percent of their instructional days for the school year, and when 11th graders have completed 88 percent of their instruction. Depending on your school district, this will happen sometime between March and June.

Two to four weeks later, your child’s school will receive scores electronically (which Hernandez says is about half the time it took to get STAR test scores). Hernandez says it will be up to individual districts whether they choose to share electronic versions of the score with parents, who in any case will receive paper reports of their child’s scores about two months after they are reported to the school.

Students will receive raw scores of 2,000 to 3,000 points and performance levels of 1 through 4 for each standard. Levels 1 and 2 indicate minimal knowledge of the standard and level 4 indicates advanced work. State officials stop short of calling level 3 “proficient,” but that is approximately what it means. No official term has yet been chosen. Hernandez says that the reports parents receive will look much like those sent out under the STAR system.

School Accountability

While student scores will be released this year, it could be a while before the state again begins measuring the progress of schools and school districts. The California Board of Education voted in January to suspend calculation and reporting of API scores for 2014-2015, and was scheduled in March to decide whether to suspend them in 2015-16 as well. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest school district, asked the state not to use this spring’s test scores to measure API.

In addition, the board will be looking at the possibility of moving away from a single indicator (such as the Smarter Balanced scores), and toward calculating API for schools based on a group of indicators. They are even looking at developing new ways of reporting the API so that it offers a clearer picture of how schools are doing. What that will look like remains to be seen.

“This is a time of change and a bit of a challenge,” says Department of Education spokesperson Pam Slater, “as California looks at many alternatives to its accountability system.”

Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.

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