Latest State Law Too Myopic to Fill Education System’s Gaps

    STATE NEWS — In another misguided attempt to reform California’s faltering
    education system, Gov.Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill last month that will
    expand the factors used to calculate a high school’s Academic Performance
    Index, starting in 2011.

    Currently, the state bases a school’s API score on the
    performance of enrolled students on the Standardized Testing and Reporting and
    California High School Exit Examination tests. These scores are then used to
    determine funding eligibiity and school rankings.

    The new law would extend the scores to include
    underperforming students who were sent by their school to an alternative
    education program, thus lowering the API score. Additionally, it would take
    into account the dropout rates for eighth and ninth grade students.

    According to a recent
    article in the San Francisco Chronicle, nearly 300,000 of the state’s high school
    students, or 15 percent, attend such alternative programs. Despite the high number of students omitted from the
    score, the new law would have little impact.

    Although including these parameters in schools’ API scores
    would more accurately reflect performance, it would do little to actually
    improve that performance because it fails to attack the issues causing poor
    performance.

    And rather than remedy an education system in dire need of
    improvement, it would penalize high achievers at low-performing schools by
    saddling them with the reduced funding resulting from a low API score.

    Reducing the dropout rate is one of those lofty, feel-good
    goals with which everyone should agree. However, lawmakers rarely propose
    appropriate solutions to address the problem. The law points out, correctly and
    poignantly, that many California students fail to graduate high school, and that those students will
    likely spend their adult lives disadvantaged and reliant on state welfare.

    By calling for only a change to the state’s performance
    indicator of schools, the law fails to remedy California’s education woes.
    Simply including underperforming students in an API score will not change their
    performance or prevent them from dropping out.

    One conspiracy theory put forth by the Chronicle, relying on
    supposed circumstantial evidence, suggested that schools are secretly pushing
    lower-performing students out of their district to boost API scores.

    Rather than placing the blame on a shadowy cabal of corrupt
    educators who want their school to be ranked higher at all costs, examining
    statistics would be useful. According to the National Dropout Prevention
    Center/Network, over half of eighth- to tenth-grade students who dropped out
    said they did not like school.

    However, widening the net of students incorporated in the
    API score does not cure the problem caused by dropouts not enjoying school.
    These students will most likely continue to fail at the same frequency despite
    any scoring changes.

    According to the text of the new law, schools are expected
    to “engag[e] pupils,” but how can schools engage students who are themselves
    unwilling to learn, push themselves or do schoolwork?

    These issues heavily depend on parental and community
    involvement in youth education — factors that the approved legislation
    completely fails to address. Reform is unlikely without tackling the core of
    the state’s secondary education problem.

    Furthermore, the bill provides no funding for secondary
    schools to address the issue it demands they improve.

    Granted, public schools constantly seem to need more money
    from state legislators to quench their growing troubles, but the programs
    necessary to revamp the system generally require longer hours from teachers and
    added resources for students — demands that both mean higher budgets.

    However, the legislation offers no increased funding for
    schools to implement after-school programs, mentoring, tutoring and professional
    development of educators identified by the NDPC/N as the best strategies for
    dropout prevention.

    Ironically, implementing alternative schooling is one of the
    most effective ways for schools to reduce dropout rates, yet the law would
    penalize schools that use that tactic by bringing down their average API score.

    Equally troublesome are the effects of lower API scores on
    funding allotments of the state’s secondary schools.

    A school’s API score and its ability to increase its API
    score every year is tied directly to “monetary and nonmonetary awards” that a
    school can receive, according to the Public School Accountability Program.
    Schools that fail to meet API targets will lose funding, and could become
    subject to sanctions and eventual state intervention.

    Re-indexing the API to include alternative education
    students and dropouts will undoubtedly cut funds from the neediest schools,
    thus taking a backward step in education reform. Instead of curtailing dropout
    rates, the state will have robbed educators of their most prized resource in
    education improvement, leaving students to suffer the consequences.

    With so much at stake, it makes sense that some educators
    would push students into alternative education programs — they would rather not
    lose valuable funding that could otherwise be spent on efforts to lower dropout
    rates.

    Even if the accusations of conspiracy theorists are true,
    educators should not be faulted for their honorable intentions.

    California’s state legislators need to come up with a plan that
    addresses the realities of state education rather than antagonizing over score
    results.

    Anything less would do a tremendous disservice to California
    students.

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