Berkeley Unified gets good grades on state report card, but not straight A’s

The new California School Dashboard provides data on Berkeley school and district performance. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley Unified received good overall marks on the state’s new school “report card,” but it performed better for some student groups than others. For example, the district qualified for extra support from the county due to the poor marks it received for the education of its homeless student population.

The new scores are displayed on the California School Dashboard, which officially launched this month following a pilot run in the spring. The dashboard is meant to provide a comprehensive assessment and accountability system for the state’s districts and schools that improves on the previous system.

Districts were previously ranked on the Academic Performance Index, receiving marks based exclusively on standardized test scores. The No Child Left Behind-era system offered “a very narrow dimension around how to evaluate the success of the school from the state’s perspective,” said Berkeley School Board President Josh Daniels at a meeting in October.

The new dashboard tracks a wider range of performance “indicators,” from test scores to suspension and graduation rates and English learner progress. Districts and schools receive color-coded marks, based on their current status and progress over time. The dashboard also provides scores for specific demographic groups, to track whether all students at an institution have equal access to an education.

BUSD received a “green” score — the second highest out of five — on each of the indicators the state tracks. However, when users drill down into each indicator on the dashboard, they will see that the district received poorer marks for certain student groups. While most student groups were marked “green” for graduation rates, for example, the district received the lower red and orange marks for the graduation rates of its homeless students and students with disabilities. And many disadvantaged groups earned orange marks for math performance, despite the overall green grade.

Each school received its own set of scores. Descriptions of how each score is calculated are available on the California Department of Education website.

BUSD received green scores — the second highest out of five options — for each of the state’s indicators. Screenshot: CA School Dashboard

The dashboard also includes “local indicators,” which apply to the district level but not the school or student-group level, measuring parent engagement, teacher certification and more. There are no color-coded scores attached to these metrics, only indications of whether the district has or has not completed an evaluation of its success in those categories. Districts determine their own marks on the local indicators, and BUSD determined that it has completed assessments of each indicator, though the dashboard said otherwise. According to BUSD, the discrepancy means the marks have not yet been entered into the system.

Accountability for improving performance

Along with the new metrics for success, the state has also launched a new system intended to hold schools and districts accountable for improving performance.

Under No Child Left Behind, “if you continued not to perform well, there was a sort of blame-and-shame approach — though there was some funding provided — to how to make schools and school districts do better,” Daniels said in October.

In the past, school districts would be given a very prescriptive solution to fixing a poor performance score, said Daniels, but “that has proven in large part not to be a successful strategy.” Under the current system, districts that qualify for extra support will receive more customized assistance from the county, based on their specific needs. Daniels himself is a director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which works with government agencies to provide that assistance to educational institutions.

BUSD was one of 288 California districts that qualified for that “differentiated assistance” this year. The districts in that group each had at least one student group with low performance scores in at least two different categories. The low scores for homeless students in Berkeley put BUSD on the list.

Student group performance differed for each indicator. Berkeley qualified for county support due to its homeless student performance. Screenshot: CA School Dashboard

The current set of scores on the dashboard is based on data from 2016-17. The system will be updated yearly, and will soon include scores for chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness as well.

“This is the first year it’s rolling out, so it will sort of be a test run for all of us,” Daniels said at the October School Board meeting.

Stanford research shows Berkeley students grow 5.3 grade levels in five years

New research out of Stanford further suggests isolated test scores do not tell the whole story.

Test scores are highly positively correlated with a district’s socioeconomic status — richer districts tend to test better, and poorer districts test worse. But the Stanford study looked at test score growth over a number of years, finding that wealth was a much poorer predictor of academic improvement in a district.

Researchers Sean Reardon and Rebecca Hinze-Pifer found that Chicago public school students’ test scores grew at a much higher rate than the average U.S. student’s, across all racial groups. In the five years between third grade and eighth grade, Chicago scores rose by the equivalent of six grade levels. At most richer districts, where third-grade scores started at a higher level, the growth rate was much lower.

A New York Times article on the Stanford research includes an interactive tool displaying the data on both proficiency and growth for 2,000 large school districts, using test scores from 2009 to 2015. The graphic shows that Berkeley students tested, on average, .1 years above grade level in third grade, and .4 years above grade level in eighth grade, meaning the scores grew by 5.3 grade levels in five years.

A chart in the article also shows how districts compare to their neighbors. Berkeley’s 5.3-year growth rate is slightly lower than Albany’s 5.5 and Piedmont’s 5.7, and higher than San Francisco’s 5.2, West Contra Costa’s 4.6 and Oakland’s 4.3-year growth rate.

The Stanford research contributes to an ongoing debate over whether proficiency or growth is a better indicator of success. No Child Left Behind aimed to have all students testing at a level deemed proficient by the state by 2014. Skeptics of that approach have said growth is a better goal, as students begin at different levels and resources vary from school to school. The proficiency-versus-growth debate came up again this year during Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing when she indicated a lack of familiarity with the concept.

The New York Times feature on the Stanford research notes that a district with a more dramatic growth rate than its wealthier neighbor might still struggle to catch up with its scores.

“Even the fastest growth rates Mr. Reardon measures couldn’t completely close the proficiency gap that exists early on between typical poor and wealthy districts,” reporters Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy wrote. “That suggests that the most effective school systems alone can’t overcome all the disadvantages of poverty that accumulate before children even reach third grade and that shape the country’s racial achievement gaps.”