LAUSD Tried To Create A Simpler Way To Compare Schools. Instead, They Created A Controversy

FILE - Jackie Goldberg, now an L.A. Unified School Board member, speaks with a volunteer while campaigning for her seat on Tues., May 14, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Los Angeles Unified School District officials have been developing a system to give each of its schools a grade — a single, overall rating of its annual performance.

The idea? School-shopping parents could use LAUSD's ratings — issued on a scale of one to five stars — to easily compare schools, and policymakers could use them to identify which schools need extra help.

But the idea has generated controversy, and on Tuesday, L.A. Unified School Board members voted in favor of a resolution to quash the proposed star-rating system.

Board member Jackie Goldberg, the resolution's author, led the charge, saying star ratings would "hold up some schools for public humiliation."

"The whole point of this from the very beginning," Goldberg said, "was the ability to say, 'This school is a dreadful school,'" and, she believes, pave the way for the struggling school's closure or takeover by a charter school operator.

Another board member, Kelly Gonez, also acknowledged the school ratings are "a non-starter." Even Nick Melvoin — a board member who supports creating something like a star-rating system — conceded prior to Tuesday's meeting that the idea was not likely to survive.

There was more at stake on Tuesday than simply the fate of the star ratings. Some fear Goldberg's resolution will also pull the plug on LAUSD's efforts to collect data on students' academic growth that would've fed that ratings system — data that maybe, just maybe, could offer some counterintuitive insights about where students are making great gains.

Still, why did district officials consider creating such a controversial rating system for LAUSD schools in the first place?

Because in the eyes of certain advocacy groups and school board members, California's system for rating schools statewide is worse — and regardless of Tuesday's vote, their dissatisfaction with the state's system will not go away easily.

"If the state had a meaningful and usable accountability system, then you wouldn't need districts building their own," said Seth Litt, executive director of the advocacy group Parent Revolution. "The fact is: the state punted."

A screenshot of California's School Dashboard listing for the L.A. Unified School District. The Dashboard rates each California school for their performance in up to seven different areas, including absenteeism and suspension rates. These ratings come in the form of colors on a five-tiered scale — from red, the lowest rating; to blue, the highest. (California Department of Education)

State officials purposely avoided giving schools an overall rating because, Learning Policy Institute president Linda Darling-Hammond explained, "a single, summative score ... tends to overwhelm the desire to look under the hood and see what's working well and what needs improvement."

(Darling-Hammond is also president of the State Board of Education, though she told KPCC/LAist she was not speaking in that capacity during her interview.)

Multiple ratings "give us a much better rounded picture of how schools are doing," added Darling-Hammond. "You often find that a school is doing well in one area may have some real needs to pay attention to in a different area."

THE CASE AGAINST CALIFORNIA'S 'DASHBOARD'

Critics charge the Dashboard's color scores and multiple measures are overwhelming to many non-experts in education policy, likely driving parents to seek out the bottom-line ratings from less-reputable sources.

"If we don't define our schools with better information, including growth data," said Melvoin, "then GreatSchools.org, realtors, NextDoor.com — all of these other groups will continue to tell the story that doesn't tell the full picture."

Darling-Hammond countered that single, summative scores don't necessarily help parents make better decisions about where to send their kids to school — so why get into the business of calculating them? She also said state officials have taken steps to make the system easier to use; the Dashboard website was recently rebuilt to allow easier access by smartphone and mobile device users.

But in September, an influential collection of advocacy groups known as the "CLASS Coalition" wrote in a letter that the Dashboard "is not sufficiently accessible, nor is it digestible for many of our families."

"Our entire Los Angeles community needs a clear and simple method for accessing information about how well students are progressing at schools," continued the letter sent on behalf of nine organizations, including the United Way of Greater L.A., the Partnership for L.A. Schools and Promesa Boyle Heights, among others.

But Goldberg noted single, overall ratings often penalize schools charged with educating the most vulnerable students. Test scores loom large in the calculation of most single school ratings — and test scores, as is often said, most closely measure poverty levels or other societal distresses.

"Public humiliation," Goldberg said, "is not a motivator. It doesn't help. What it does is great harm."

FILE - L.A. Unified School Board members Jackie Goldberg (left) and Kelly Gonez attend a board meeting on Tues., June 11, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

WHAT ABOUT THE 'GROWTH' DATA?

While the district's star-rating system is almost certainly dead, there's more mystery about what will happen to some of the data LAUSD officials had hoped would power the new ratings.

The district had hoped to make use of a "growth model," which attempts to measure how quickly or slowly students are progressing when compared to other similar students with a history of similar test scores.

The model — furnished by the California CORE collaborative of urban school districts — builds a profile of the students' economic background, ethnic identity, disability and English learner status, among other factors.

Based on this profile and the student's prior year scores, the model predicts how much progress the student is likely to make on this year's exam. If a student beats the model's prediction, her school's overall growth score goes up.

Opponents note the model makes these predictions for students' individual progress in something of a black box. But proponents say these student growth models can essentially control for poverty — or, at least, cancel out some of the disadvantages of school rating systems for poor schools.

Similarly, schools with historically high test scores would not necessarily receive high growth ratings if their students weren't making sufficient progress.

'ANY DATA THAT CAN HELP'

With their 6-1 vote in April 2018, board members had voted to include growth data in a new "Student Performance Framework," which would combine multiple data sources into a system that would help district officials "evaluate all schools" and "inform the equitable distribution of resources to the district's highest-need schools."

It was out of this same 2018 vote to create a "Student Performance Framework" that district staff found a mandate to create the outlines for its plan to give every school a star rating.

But the resolution up for a vote Tuesday leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

While the legislation clearly blocks "any use of stars, scores, or any other rating system," it also does not specify what will happen to the growth data. In the absence of clarity, some opponents of Jackie Goldberg's resolution fear the board's vote will have the effect of preventing the data from ever becoming public.

Even Melvoin said he wasn't certain what impact the resolution would have, as it's currently drafted — though he noted its author, Goldberg, has voiced her desire to share any useful data with schools.

"Any data that can help a school ... do better for students is data we should be providing each school," Goldberg said in a September interview. "We'll give them as much information as we can — including about growth."

UPDATE, Nov. 6, 9:40 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect that the LAUSD board voted on Tuesday in favor of a resolution rejecting the proposed school ratings system.