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April 18-24, 2007

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Testing, Testing

Testing, Testing: What California schools are learning is how to help students ace the API index.

Money Pit

If only billions of dollars were sufficient to fix California's schools, our students would be just fine

By Joy Lanzendorfer

It's not as though there isn't any money. In California, 51 cents out of every tax dollar--including sales and income tax--goes to education. On top of that, voters last year approved a $3.5 billion bond for public schools. Nevertheless, the state has some of the lowest test scores in the country. In 2005, California ranked 47th for education, meaning that only three other states had students who scored worse on standardized tests.

However, the Department of Education believes we still aren't spending enough. Per-pupil spending in California is 30 percent below the national average, according to DOE director of policy and evaluation Pat McCabe.

Still, others are suggesting that it isn't so much the amount of money in the educational system as how the money is being used--primarily for inefficient and bloated programs that aren't reaching the classrooms.

A recent study by the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and the California Business for Education Excellence claims that one such example is the Academic Performance Index (API), a score that attempts to measure how well schools are doing. According to the study, the state spends $1.25 billion on improvement programs to help struggling schools become proficient, and yet they have had "little if any academic improvement."

The study, called "Failing Our Future," compares student test scores from 1,620 low-performing schools that participated in the improvement programs to those of schools that didn't participate in the programs. It found that there was "no significant difference in academic achievement over time." Not only that, the study asserts that the state doesn't have a high enough growth rate for nonperforming schools, and that minority and low-income kids are still being left behind.

"We found no real accountability for the schools," says Vicki Murray, a senior fellow in education studies at PRI. "There needs to be consequence for failure. As it is, parents don't have meaningful options in California. If you're a parent and you have a child enrolled in a school that's not up to snuff, what do you do?"

In 1999, California established the API score to quantify how well the schools are doing. Every year, students take a series of tests ranging from language arts to math. Based on the overall test scores, the state does a calculation and assigns each school a number ranging from 200 to 1,000. The goal is for all schools to reach 800, which is considered proficient.

The API conflicts with another measurement system, the Adequate Yearly Progress score, part of the No Child Left Behind Act established by the Bush administration. For a school to be proficient under this newer federal system, it would have to have a score of 875.

"The state still stresses 800 because it's an easier score to meet," says Lance Izumi, who co-authored the study. "The more schools meet the state target, the greater number of schools appear to be on track."

For those schools not reaching 800, there are two state programs designed to help them improve. The problem, according to Izumi, is that the billion-dollar programs don't work because their growth target is too low. Schools that agree to enter the program only have to improve 5 percent a year. At that rate, a school with a score of 635 or less--a plight of more than 3,400 schools--would take between 61 to 84 years to reach 800.

"We're sacrificing generations of students while the schools are making small incremental progress," says Izumi.

McCabe believes the study's criticism is unrealistic. The reason the growth target is low is because it's so hard for schools to improve with their limited resources.

"It's a realistic target," says McCabe. "It's very difficult to move huge numbers of kids across these proficiency lines. The average gains per year are between 10 and 11 points. We're holding the schools accountable, but we try to make the targets reasonable."

In practice, many schools do seem to improve faster than 5 percent a year. From 1999 to 2006 in Sonoma County, median scores steadily increased by 78 points for elementary schools, 67 points for middle schools and 48 points for high schools. The improvement may be slow, but it's steady.

"There is some logic to what the study is saying," says Don Russell, assistant superintendent of the Sonoma County School District. "But it's not what's occurring in the schools. The schools aren't saying, you know, we only have to improve 5 percent a year so let's draw this out for 20 years. People are saying, 'Golly, we'd better improve our scores and get better.' So it's not really a strong argument."

The study also says that by focusing on overall school performance, kids who are lagging behind will improve at the same rate as everyone else but will never catch up, an issue that is especially troubling for minority or low-income children.

"Let's say that a school has a score of 400," says Izumi. "The white students have a cumulative score of 500 and the African-American and Hispanic kids have a score of 350. Even if all the groups hit the growth target, it doesn't close the gap between the minorities and white students."

The Department of Education seems aware of this problem. It is in the process of changing the target structure so that some of the subgroups, like minority or low-income kids, will be required to grow faster than they have in the past. In theory, it will start closing some of those gaps.

But blaming the API for the problems in the schools is misdiagnosing the problem, believes McCabe.

"The API is just a measurement," he says. "It gives us a list of schools that are not making progress and shows us their growth over time. Blaming the API for schools not making progress is like blaming the thermometer for causing the cold."

For Izumi, the API is one of many expensive programs not making enough of a difference in the educational system.

"They are wasting a lot of the taxpayers' money, and a lot of folks are calling for more," he says. "Money has been poured into the system. And it has not improved it one iota."

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