Assessing our schools

Editor’s note: The Napa Valley Register is a sister publication to The Weekly Calistogan.

Few questions are as central to life in a community as “how good is my local school?”

The answer to that question determines where you choose (or are able) to live, how much you pay for a house, what you pay in taxes, and what people think of your neighborhood and your town.

For such an important and seemingly simple question, as it turns out, there is no easy answer.

News organizations, educational foundations, states, and school districts themselves are forever trying to compare and rank schools in a way that answers the question: is my local school any good or not?

The biggest effort of recent times was the 2001 No Child Left Behind act, which took the simple expedient of comparing everyone’s test scores and giving schools a pass-fail grade.

Unfortunately, that effort turned out to be the bluntest possible way of looking at the situation. By strictly focusing on those numbers, it shackled teachers and administrators, forcing them to teach to the all-important tests. It also painted a misleading picture without any trace of nuance – it predestined well-funded schools with a high percentage of affluent students to perpetual success and condemned poor schools with high numbers of poor students, or ones from non-English-speaking families, to perpetual failure.

The shortcomings of this approach became obvious quickly and it was largely scrapped.

Into the void has stepped the state of California with the “California School Dashboard,” an online tool that rates districts and individual schools in a color-coded system, looking at dozens of different types of data, from graduation rates to suspensions to test scores to the level of English proficiency among children of immigrant parents.

This new system, which went live on Wednesday, is clearly a great improvement over the blunt tool of No Child Left Behind, but it is hardly perfect.

The first problem is that it is complex. For all the visual simplicity of a color-coded system (from an alarming red on the poor end to a soothing blue on the high end), the data is complicated and not well explained. Most information comes from last year, but other data, such as suspension rate, is two years old or more. This is not well explained on the website, nor is much of the raw numerical data that goes into the rankings available to the general public.

The system can also lead to confusing anomalies. New Tech High School, for example, is generally seen as one of the county’s most successful schools, and yet it falls into the middling “yellow” category on graduation rates, despite being well into the 90s percentage-wise. Why? Because its graduating class is so small that the difference of one or two students can skew the data, making it appear that the graduation rate is falling, when it is merely subject to a normal statistical fluctuation.

The Register editorial board met this week with representatives from the county Office of Education and the Napa Valley Unified School District. It was clear their feelings were decidedly mixed about this new tool.

On the up side, they were relieved to be free of the stark and unforgiving No Child Left Behind method of ranking schools. The new system gives schools credit for progress made by at-risk or disadvantaged students, and the NVUSD does far better on this count than its raw math and reading test scores would suggest.

On the other hand, however, they are worried about the complexity of the reports and the inconsistent way data is used and shared with the public. Clearly the reports will generate as many questions as answers and the administrators seem resigned to having to spend a lot of time explaining to parents what the colored symbols mean.

We too were frustrated with the new system. It is a commendable effort to add some nuance and depth to assessing a school’s performance. And yet it brings us back around to where we started – a jumble of numbers that get us no closer to a clear answer to whether our schools are working or not.

Perhaps there is no simple answer. It seems that if you ask “Is my school succeeding” the answer will inevitably be “it depends on what you want.”

Try the tool yourself. It is available at caschooldashboard.org, though it might be worth visiting the California Department of Education’s explanatory page first: cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/cm. It is ponderous and dense, but does have some explanation of what the new system is about, why it was created, and how to read it.

In the end, we and the local school administrators agreed: the new “dashboard” system is an improvement, but it is not in itself an answer to the questions parents have. Look up your school or your district, and if you see something that concerns you, do not be afraid to call up the administration and ask about it.

That may be the Dashboard’s most valuable function: leading parents and school officials into a more detailed conversation about whether our schools are working or not.

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The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Brenda Speth, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.