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Dan Walters

How California’s School ‘Dashboard’ Obscures Poor Academic Performance

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California's schools dashboard can obscure the continuing failure of the state’s students to meet key academic standards, says Dan Walters. (CalMatters Photo/Miguel Gutierrez Jr.)
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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.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

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.”

Achievement Gap as Wide as Ever

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.

“This is encouraging news – and our work is not complete,” said state schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond. “We have made an unprecedented investment in services that address the needs of the whole child. We can see that those efforts are paying off, but this is only the beginning. We need to continue providing students with the tools they need to excel, especially now that we are successfully reengaging our students and families, so we can close gaps in achievement in the same way that we have begun to close the equity gaps in attendance and absenteeism.”

Analysts outside the establishment were less sanguine.

Heather Hough, executive director of PACE, a Stanford-based education research organization, told EdSource that the dashboard’s emphasis on one year’s changes can be misleading.

“That can mask the concern that we should still be having: A lot of students are far behind where they have been, and large portions of students are not attending school,” Hough said.

A more useful dashboard would make academics at least 50% of overall scoring, since improving them is the declared goal of the many billions of dollars that have been spent over the last decade. If kids can’t read, write and do math, the other stuff means nothing.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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