Spotlight on shady ranking of schools
Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
No one has done a formal study, but the circumstantial evidence is there: Some California high schools are quietly boosting their statewide academic ranking by sending their lowest-scoring students into alternative programs that have separate tests.
On Monday, supporters of a law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said it offers a way to stop the practice while giving educators stronger incentives to keep students from dropping out of school.
The law won't take effect for at least four years. But it will require that test scores of students who are sent to alternative schools be counted in the original school's Academic Performance Index, the school-ranking system that now relies only on test scores.
In addition, dropout rates for eighth- and ninth-graders will be used to help calculate each school's API.
Although there are no hard data to prove that schools boost their rankings by shunting the lowest-scorers to alternative schools, continuation schools or other dropout prevention programs, anecdotal evidence suggests the practice is widespread.
And the system itself invites the habit, said state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the Sacramento Democrat who wrote the new law.
"I believe the vast majority of public educators are well-intentioned, but the system provides a perverse incentive," Steinberg said. "Your scores are likely to go up if you move kids with significant challenges on."
Almost 300,000 students - nearly 15 percent of the state's 2 million high school students - attend an alternative program, says the California Legislative Analyst.
Jan Treff, president of the California Association of Supervisors of Child Welfare and Attendance, whose members work on behalf of truants and expelled students, had urged Schwarzenegger to sign Steinberg's bill, SB219.
"Now no one is going to get shoved in a corner to play with a puzzle while everyone else takes the test," Treff said. "This gives us more teeth to monitor what's happening."
The state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst bluntly described the problem in a report in February called "Improving Alternative Education in California."
The report said: "The state's accountability system allows schools and districts to use referrals to alternative schools as a way to avoid responsibility for the progress of low-performing students."
Holding the original school accountable for students' progress in an alternative program encourages schools to make a referral only if it would benefit the student, the report said.
The California School Boards Association opposes the new law because of its provision adding dropout rates to the Academic Performance Index, said Executive Director Scott Plotkin.
As it is now, the API relies only on math and English scores to rank schools. Plotkin said there's no point in "loading up the API" with non-academic measures.
"We'd like to have additional indicators, but we'd rather have them focused on student achievement," he said - such as history scores.
The new law goes into effect on July 1, 2011, at the earliest. The state would first have to have a data system in place that would let schools calculate their dropout and graduation rates accurately.
Now, educators merely guess at those rates because they can't track the thousands of students who leave school without telling administrators where they're going.
The problem creates ripple effects in the state's ability to allocate funds and create effective programs for needy students. And it's been the subject of growing scrutiny.
Schwarzenegger allocated $65 million in his spring budget to develop the data system, but the funding was cut during budget negotiations over the summer.