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OpEd: California’s school dashboard is anything but helpful

Who wants to know how California public schools are performing? There’s the usual assortment of policymakers, politicians, journalists, researchers and other professionals.

But who needs to know? Parents. They’re the ones faced with choosing which school their children will attend – a decision that will have a profound impact on their futures. Just as importantly, clear school information allows parents to know when and how to get involved in their children’s schools.

For parents, figuring out how their neighborhood school is doing and how it compares to nearby schools should be simple. After all, Sacramento bureaucrats created a dashboard that’s supposed to help parents understand how schools and districts are performing across a number of measures. But the dashboard, with its complex, color-coded matrix, clearly ignores its most important users: parents.

The dashboard doesn’t even let parents compare schools side-by-side, nor does it let them see data on some of the “multiple measures” Sacramento leaders keep touting, including chronic absenteeism and the college and career indicator. While a huge chunk of California parents are Spanish speakers, the dashboard is only available in English. After five years of development, the dashboard shouldn’t have such giant potholes.

Officials in Sacramento point to a recent poll that supposedly found parents like the dashboard. What they don’t mention is that the majority of parents surveyed – 57% – don’t agree with the dashboard’s approach to summarizing the overall performance of schools. They believe each school should receive an overall rating, such as a letter grade A-F or a score on the 0-100 scale. That’s exactly what the dashboard doesn’t do; instead, it assigns multiple, confusing colors to every school.

The poll is also not representative of California’s diverse students and families. Fifty three percent of parents surveyed were white. Compare that figure to, say, Los Angeles Unified, where 74% of the students are Latino, or Santa Ana Unified, where 93% of students are Latino. The survey was only conducted in English, even though nearly one in four students in California are English learners. Most importantly, nearly half of those surveyed had never even visited the dashboard website.

Meanwhile, bureaucrats have already begun manipulating the dashboard to meet their own needs, rather than the needs of parents. Last year, when too many schools were identified as red (the lowest performing) on the dashboard, the State Board of Education simply voted to lower the standards, which rescued many of those schools from red and moved them up to orange.

All parents want honest information about their children’s schools. And while families of every race, religion and income level are willing to wrestle their way through all kinds of systemic obstacles to get a decent education for their children, Sacramento shouldn’t be adding to their struggle. Why, in 2018, are bureaucrats refusing to provide clear information about the state’s schools, putting yet another obstacle in the way of our state’s most underserved families?

Though state officials have been tweaking it for years, the dashboard still does not provide an objective, clear and comparable measure of school quality. That’s one of the reasons California’s plan to meet the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law by President Obama, was sharply criticized and sent back by the federal Department of Education. Right now Sacramento bureaucrats are deciding if and how to fix the dashboard as they revise their plan and prepare to send it back to Washington, D.C. They should take this opportunity to follow ESSA’s guidelines and include 11th grade academic performance as a standalone item on the dashboard; this would also ensure that California isn’t juggling two separate accountability systems – one for the state, one for the federal government.

Too many families in California are already forced to face the reality of a public education system that is failing their children. Parents have a big role to play in their children’s education, but they can’t do it alone. They need those in power to face the same reality and get to action. But, as long as the dashboard leaves the final word on school quality open to interpretation, it’s too often parents’ word against the powerful bureaucrats When they insist that our schools are doing just fine when they aren’t, it’s bad for neighborhood schools and bad for students.

California’s fourth graders who live in poverty rank dead last in the nation in math and 49th in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Their future – and the future of this state – shouldn’t be lost in a color-coded maze. No matter if or when the federal government approves California’s plan to comply with ESSA, the State Board of Education must not give up on making the dashboard work for all parents. A clear, direct, objective and understandable accountability system is possible – and it’s what parents need and deserve to make informed decisions about their children’s futures.

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