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New California K-12 school performance tracker criticized for complexity, inaccuracy

Student ratings found in the state department of education's newest portal don't stack up against poor performance measures found elsewhere.

Jason Shueh
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Jason Shueh Tech Editor

Jason Shueh is a tech editor at StateScoop with a specialty for civic tech and smart city news. His articles and writing have covered numerous subj...

The new portal provides an overview of student performance across the state's K-12 schools. (California Department of Education)

A new California Department of Education website designed to help researchers, parents and K-12 school officials track performance is already garnering criticism. 

The department and the State Board of Education launched the site — called the California School Dashboard — on Wednesday, lauding it as a milestone for academic transparency and improvement. A visit to the dashboard presents visitors with a color-coded rating system on issues such as graduation rates, suspension rates, academic achievement and English-learner progress. Red represents the lowest degree of performance while blue is the highest, though there are no overall ratings for schools. Created in response criticisms of a previous site that was called too simplistic, some say the new ratings are overly optimistic and "intentionally complex."

Board President Michael Kirst said the tool, which is still being refined, acts as a measuring stick for California and state officials across a number of focus areas.

“The California School Dashboard provides local communities with meaningful and relevant information on how well schools and districts are doing,” Kirst said in a release. “It will help in local decision-making by highlighting both the progress of schools and student groups, shining a light on disparities and helping stakeholders pinpoint where resources should be directed."

Yet critics of the dashboard say it misrepresents the real academic standings of schools and districts by not focusing on standardized test scores. An analysis with the Los Angeles Times found that 80 percent of the schools for grades three to eight were all ranked as medium to high performing in the new ranking system. This is in stark contrast to test results in 2016 that showed that 50 percent of students in these schools failed to meet basic English and math proficiency for their grade levels.

State officials defended the new rating system by arguing that it presented a more holistic view of schools by showing progress from previous years and considering other factors that influence a student's education.

"I think of it as a high-tech report card for our schools. Just as our children receive report cards with multiple grades in multiple subject areas, the California School Dashboard provides us with many different measures of a school’s performance—where it’s strong, where it needs to improve, how it’s doing over time."

Whether the dashboard's less stringent scoring system is detailed enough to be useful will likely be fleshed out in the coming months as parents and educators use — or don't use — the site. Holistic rankings not withstanding, if the dashboard is unable to articulate the real performance of a school or district, it will lose credibility. The Academic Performance Index, the state's previous accountability system, centered entirely on standardized test scores and labeled schools with a single score. The program ended in 2014 due to criticism from educators that its focus on scoring was too narrow.

The dashboard will continue to be fine-tuned with future updates expected and these enhancements could be an avenue to answer concerns. In recent years, government has learned from the tech sector to create quickly and iterate after. This gives citizens a chance to give feedback and alleviates the take-it-or-leave-it pressures placed on officials to get everything right the first time. To revamp their websites, both Boston and Philadelphia launched beta versions that allow for co-creation with residents. The federal government has also beta-tested new sites, including those for the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Commerce.

“As exciting a development as this is, it’s important to understand that the California School Dashboard itself is a work in progress," Kirst said. "It will be a far more valuable tool one year from now and three years from now than it is today as more indicators come online, as feedback is incorporated, and as improvements are made.”

The finalized version of the website is slated for fall 2017.

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States, California, State & Local News, Innovation, Open Government, Open Data, Tech News, Data & Analytics, Business Intelligence, Digital Services, Websites, California School Dashboard, California Department of Education

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