Is your neighborhood public school a "2" or "3"; a "9" or "10" or something in between?
Chances are you found out the answer to that question last month when the state released the rankings of every school in California as determined by the state's Academic Performance Index. The annual single-digit rankings were based on student performance on statewide mandated tests in English, math, social studies, history and science.
With its instant numerical scores, the API system, now in its fifth year, has become the public catalyst in school accountability that has driven slow-but-steady improvements in academic achievement in California schools in recent years.
The Business Roundtable for Education has long championed identifying and promoting best practices in our classrooms, and the notion that schools and their teaching staffs need to be accountable for improving student achievement. But we've been increasingly concerned in how well school-level accountability data, teaching practices and focused professional development for educators are driving improved school performance in our state's public schools.
We're not sure the present API grasps and analyzes the necessary data to give us a complete or accurate picture of how well our schools are performing. State content and performance standards to establish a robust and relevant curriculum is one thing; determining when and where good or bad teaching and learning takes place is yet another. We need more intimate data than schoolwide scores, and we need assessment and accountability mechanisms that are easy for parents, community members and other non-educators to understand.
One such possibility is a Web-based model, developed by Just 4 the Kids California, that presents an easy-to-understand and accurate academic picture showing the strengths, weaknesses, long-term progress and academic potential of individual public schools. By focusing on student performance at grade level on the Language Arts and Mathematics California Standards Tests, the JFTK-CA model connects schools to a pool of higher performing grade levels from similar schools as part of an effort to benchmark and transfer best educational practices.
Last February, JFTK-CA, an affiliate of the National Center for Educational Accountability, launched the Web-based model that's available free of charge at www.jftk-ca.org. Some 1,000 schools will be provided with a deeper data picture through agreements with their respective school districts to provide JFTK-CA with student-level data for the program.
The successful implementation and use of the JFTK-CA system will depend on vigorous and continuing leadership in key regions throughout the state. I am pleased to serve on the program's Regional Executive Council, representing the Southern California/San Diego region, because I firmly believe this concept can enhance our ability to obtain and analyze the test score data we need to assess how well our schools are doing. Even under the present API ranking system, only 11.5 percent of the 630 public schools in San Diego County had a top ranking of 10 when compared to schools with similar demographics across the state. Thirteen percent of our schools were at the bottom with a 1 or 2 ranking. On a broader scale, 56.5 percent of county schools rank in the top half of campuses in California, based on test scores.
The present API system does an adequate job in identifying the good and poor schools, but that's not where the problem stops. We need to know specifically where in each individual school good and not-so-good teaching and learning is taking place.
To do so -- and I've said it before but it bears repeating -- we need schools to use testing methodologies that make use of "longitudinal" data -- that is, testing data gathered from specific groups of students over a period of time. What good is it to take a snapshot of one group of say, 10th graders taking the standardized tests this year and try to compare that with another group of students who took the test as 10th graders a year ago? They're different people who collectively have different characteristics. One group many have had a higher number of transfer students who are particularly bright. Or, there may be other circumstances that affect the outcome of the tests they take.
Effective and more reliable assessment is best achieved when testing data for specific students are looked at over time as those students progress through the grades. We need testing and assessment methodologies that, in effect, follow these students through the system. When their scores are particularly good in a given year, we'll know that they've had especially effective teachers. Likewise, if and when their scores are not so good in a given year, we can identify specifically where teachers have not gotten the job done.
In other words, effective school accountability needs to begin and end in each and every classroom, testing the year-to-year progress of students, not grade levels.
It's not enough to be critical of the public school system that to date has spurned this concept; the Business Roundtable for Education is doing something about it. We're into the second year of a three-year Data Analysis and Accountability Project in which we're working with 30 charter schools in San Diego County to develop and use effective measures of assessing student achievement -- principally the use of longitudinal data. Funded by the La Jolla-based Girard Foundation, our project is putting into place the infrastructure needed to collect and analyze data at the participating charter school sites. This will enable those charter schools to take the information they know about their students' achievement levels, monitor it over time to watch for individual growth and slips in achievement and be able to respond early on.
The end result is that valid testing methodologies give teachers, administrators and parents a more accurate picture of their students' academic progress. And, it shouldn't come as a surprise that such testing methods themselves can and do raise test scores.
When all is said and done, teaching, learning and testing takes place in the seats of every classroom. Let's make sure accountability that drives productive decision-making has a seat as well.
Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at email@example.com.