New California ‘dashboard’ will prompt deeper questions about student and school performance

Credit: Alison Yin for EdSourceRedwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 17, 2017.Credit: Alison Yin for EdSourceRedwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 17, 2017.Dianna MacDonaldDecember 11, 2017If someone asked you how well your child was doing in school, would you say simply, “He’s an 85,” or “He’s a C”?
I doubt it.
Instead, you’d more likely say something like “He’s doing well in math and he’s showing a lot of creativity in his drama class. He was having some trouble in English, but he’s making progress. And socially, things are okay, though for a while there was some bullying going on in one of his classes.”
CREDIT: CA PTADianna MacDonaldWhen it comes to our kids, there are so many dimensions to be discussed.
The same is true for California’s students as a whole — as well as our nearly 1,000 K-12 school districts and 10,000 schools. To understand how they and we are doing requires more than a single number. Much more.
That’s why California State PTA embraces the official launch of California’s School Dashboard. This new accountability and school improvement tool reflects what parents and families from all backgrounds and PTAs across the state have long been saying: Educating students is complex work and many different things affect their success.
The new dashboard provides parents and everyone else with more information than ever before about the progress their schools are making. Importantly, this information will shine a light on matters of equity, including disparities among different groups. Over time, we also expect the dashboard to include even more information about locally reported indicators including parent and student engagement and school conditions and climate — keys to a school’s success and critically important to students and families.
Using the dashboard has been compared to peeling an onion. With its many layers of useful information, the dashboard enables parents and educators to peel away layers and see how their school is doing in a variety of different areas and at multiple levels. This is a great asset, enabling and encouraging California families to further invest in their children’s education, and doing so from a position of knowledge.
For certain it represents a giant leap forward compared to the state’s old accountability system, which assigned a single number to schools and districts based solely on test results — scores from one exam taken on one day. (It’s worth noting that in the 2017 PDK poll of Public Attitudes Towards Education, less than half of adults, 42 percent, said performance on standardized tests was a highly important indicator of school quality.) The old system relied on those ratings to label schools or take punitive actions — but it didn’t really tell us much about how to actually improve schools.
Yet, before most parents across the state have even seen the official new dashboard, a few critics have suggested parents will be confused by too much information or are too busy to delve into it. Some argue for a return to a single number or summary rating.
Educating students is complex work and many different things affect their success. A single number ranking can be deceptive in its simplicity. The new dashboard is the result of hundreds of meetings with parents, educators and community members who advocated for an accountability system that provides a fuller picture of the many ways schools help students grow. In my role as the state PTA president, I have the chance to talk with parents every day from communities all across the state. Without question, parents are both capable of understanding multiple data points and eager for a deeper understanding of their school’s successes and challenges.
As part of California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), parents now have an important seat at the table as local school districts set priorities, allocate precious resources, and address the unique needs and challenges of their students. The dashboard gives parents much more information to bring to that table.
At the same time, parents, as well as teachers, administrators, board members and community members need additional support and training to help all of us strengthen our abilities to analyze data and engage in collaborative conversations. PTA believes that legislators and the governor must invest more to build the capacity of individuals at all levels of our education system, so that students are better supported and we are better equipped to help all schools make continuous improvements.
I encourage all parents and community members to click onto the California School Dashboard and learn more about how their schools are doing in the many different areas. The dashboard will likely prompt questions — and that’s great!
The dashboard doesn’t have all the answers. In fact, its greatest value may be in its ability to help us ask more and sharper questions. It’s the same process of inquiry that we teach our students about in their science courses. The dashboard has critical data that opens up conversations about the progress and performance of our students, our schools and our school districts. It can help parents, families, community members and school employees identify the important questions to ask and compel district leaders to address those questions honestly and openly.
Ultimately, that helps parents and local communities work more effectively with school leaders and educators to improve our schools so each of our students will be successful in careers, and in life.
Dianna MacDonald is the president of California State PTA — the largest volunteer-led child-advocacy association working to drive improvements in the education, health and well-being of all children and families.
The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, we encourage you to review our guidelines and contact us.
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