The API -- an agent of change
O'Connell refers to "California's world-renowned academic content standards." Read One Size Fits Few. In a chapter titled "Californication," I have another word for these standards.
by Jack O'Connell
Imagine a school that has a population of mostly poor and ethnically diverse students, but is still managing to improve student achievement -- so much so that the school more than doubled its academic growth target set by the state for two consecutive years. This is a story of success at San Francisco's Fairmount Elementary School and Marina Middle School. These schools are not perfect. They still have a great deal of hard work ahead of them to help every student reach his or her full potential, but we know these schools are on the right track. However, under the federal system of school accountability, these schools are considered "failing" and must implement sanctions mandated by the federal system. There are 475 other schools in California in the same boat. How did we get to this point?
It seems hard to imagine now, but less than a decade ago, our state had no systemic system of school accountability. In 1999, the California Public School Accountability Act was enacted. The cornerstone of this law is the Academic Performance Index (API). Before the API existed, there was no way to empirically compare schools or measure a school's progress. Among all districts in California, there were widely differing expectations for students -- some schools offered demanding curriculum and held students to high standards, others tragically allowed students to coast through without mastering even basic math or reading skills. Many districts were somewhere in between -- holding high standards for promising students, but allowing struggling students to graduate with low-level skills and minimal knowledge. With the API in place, a sea change began to take place. Our schools began to embrace a culture of high expectations for all students. As a result of the API, California's world-renowned academic content standards became not just advisory but the standard that every student should meet in every subject in every school.
Now in place for eight years, the API system is considered a legitimate and easy-to-understand measure of school performance by California educators, parents, businesses and the public. The API has fostered a culture of accountability in districts and schools, which in turn has produced significant improvements in school performance. Based on statewide test scores, student achievement gains have been steady in nearly every grade.
The API system is based on year-to-year improvement of each school. It measures the success of significant groups of students at each school, on the basis of how much student achievement improves from one year to the next. Starting this year, with increased academic performance growth targets for all student subgroups, the API will push schools harder to close achievement gaps between high-performing students, who are usually white, Asian or financially well off, and their lower-performing peers, who are often poor, African American or Latino.
Several years after the API was instituted, the federal government instituted the No Child Left Behind act, which requires states to measure student performance in math and English-language arts another way. The federal system, called Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), which labels schools as passing or failing, gives credit only if enough students reach a certain proficiency level. It does not reflect the progress students are making if they happen to be above or below that bar. It also does not recognize if the academic performance of students who are above or below that bar is stagnating or declining.
Because the state and federal laws overlap, schools in California are now measured two ways, by the API and also by the federal AYP system. This has sometimes resulted in confusion and frustration by educators, parents and the public who want to know how schools in their community are doing. I have joined with the state Board of Education and the governor's secretary of education to find a way to meld the two systems, keeping the best aspects of both. This remains a work in progress. In the meantime, there are a few, but increasingly vocal, critics who have argued for the elimination of the API, in favor of the AYP system. "Schools won't improve fast enough if you measure only incremental progress," they say. In reality, however, best practices in our schools are what lead to improved student achievement, not the instrument that measures that achievement.
We have reason to be impatient when it comes to student achievement, and we must not accept the achievement gaps that are robbing far too many students of successful futures. But blaming a system of measurement for the fact that our students aren't performing where we need them to be is tantamount to holding the thermometer responsible for the cold weather outside.
I am the first to argue that our schools have a long way to go before the achievement gap is closed and all of our students are meeting the high standards we have set for them. But the API is an important tool for guiding our school improvement efforts because it identifies the schools most in need of intervention. It makes little sense to identify a school for corrective action when the students are making significant improvement in academic achievement, as Fairmount Elementary School and Marina Middle School have done. By measuring growth, the API system enables us to target intervention efforts at schools that are most in need of help.
Jack O'Connell is the California Superintendent of Public Instruction.
San Francisco Chronicle
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