For more than a decade, school success in California boiled down to student performance on standardized state assessments. But three years ago, state lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown passed a landmark piece of legislation that changed the way schools get funding and are evaluated.
Factoring in more than just test scores, however, can get tricky. For example, one of several new performance indicators in California is school climate, or the quality of life on campus.
“The idea that, if it’s not a quantitative measure it doesn’t matter, I think is naive,” Kirst says. “We’re not throwing the hard numbers. They’re there. But we’re just saying and the Legislature is saying and requiring us to deal with a more overall look.”
One school that’s been working hard to improve its school climate is Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento.
Six years ago, Oak Ridge was one of the worst schools in California based on the state’s old accountability system. Students didn’t show up, parents didn’t trust teachers, and teachers were burned out.
But once the school honed in on improving campus life, things started to change. Oak Ridge’s new mission is to address the social and emotional needs of its students so learning can take place.
“When students feel safe at school, their brains can engage in academic learning,” says Assistant Principal Tiffany Wilson. “It’s one of those where the horse has to come before the cart.”
One of the many strategies Oak Ridge employs is journal writing.
Every morning, students are asked to focus on the present, reflect on the day ahead and create a goal in their “gratitude journals.” Once time is up, all of them have to share what they wrote.
In Whitney Cole’s sixth-grade class, she plays inspirational music to get kids thinking.
Here’s a sampling of their thoughts:
“Today I will be great. I will achieve my goal by following my teacher and doing the right thing.”
“My happiness goal is that I will make my teachers happy by focusing because that’s always a struggle for me.”
“My goal is to not get in trouble and pay attention so I don’t miss anything.”
Many education experts agree that fostering student-teacher trust and making students feel valued make a big difference in how well a school performs.
To be clear: Test scores in math and English will still carry the most weight, but the new metrics will also measure:
High school graduation rates
Rates in which English learners are reclassified as proficient in English
Student suspension rates
Chronic absentee rates
How well high school are preparing students for college and careers
California is the first in the nation to adopt this multidimensional evaluation approach, which is why other states are watching closely.
At Oak Ridge Elementary, most parents support the change because they see how moving beyond test scores and improving campus life has helped their school overall.
"Parents now want to bring their kids here,” says April Ybarra, a mother of two daughters at Oak Ridge. “I think the school has earned that respect to the point people are ready to protect them. They feel like this is a community. We are family. It’s about relationships with families."
Most like it in theory but it’s the details that continue to cause concern, including how to define progress in certain areas, how to pinpoint the performance of high-needs students and what kind of data should even be used in the first place.
Take parent engagement. Much like school climate, it can mean different things at different schools.
“Many parents feel they’re engaged simply because they’re sending their child to school -- they’re doing their best to make sure their child shows up every day,” says state school board member Patricia Ann Rucker. “We need to think about what we are actually counting as evidence of engagement.”
That evidence will likely be based on the results of research-backed school surveys about parent engagement and school climate. School districts would be required to adopt one of several state-approved evaluations that fit their needs.
“Our prior system oversimplified things. It made it simple, but it oversimplified what was really happening to children or to schools,” Kirst says.
State officials are also working on a color-coded report card to present all this new information, but critics say the initial drafts of the report card are confusing.
Brad Strong, education policy for Children Now, says presenting the results of all these new metrics will be problematic for the state.
“If I have this picture of green and yellow, blue and red, and I really can’t make a comparison to other schools, how do I know which of the schools that are really struggling?”
The next huge challenge: how to make schools accountable once this system begins pinpointing struggling campuses. Local spending decisions are influenced by what the new performance indicators show.
Critics say they’re watching closely to make sure the new system includes consequences they believe are needed to close California’s widening achievement gap.