How are students doing? New California School Dashboard is out

by Carolyn Jones, CalMatters Network
In the first glimpse of California’s K-12 schools’ year-over-year progress since the pandemic,  graduation rates hit some of their highest levels ever, absenteeism dropped significantly, and hundreds of districts showed academic improvements.

But despite a few bright spots, most of the 13 measurements that California uses to gauge student achievement remained flat in the 2023 School Dashboard, which the California Department of Education released today.

Returning to the color-coded system the state used prior to the pandemic, the new dashboard graded many categories as “yellow,” or mid-way between high and low. In assigning one of five colors, the state combines data about schools’ current performance and progress from previous years, which it says creates a more nuanced picture of achievement. Districts that score red — the lowest grade — for more than one category qualify for extra assistance to make improvements. 

During the pandemic, the state didn’t update the dashboard for two years, and then last year didn’t use the color-coding system because there was no previous data to compare it to. This is the first year since 2019 that the dashboard contains full information about test scores and other metrics.

First released in 2018, the dashboard is meant to give the public a fuller view of school performance, beyond just test scores. The dashboard looks at detailed data such as suspension rates, progress of English learners and career readiness, broken down by race and ethnicity and whether students are low-income, in foster care, are homeless or have disabilities.

“In no way, shape or form is yellow a good thing,” said Kimberly Mundhenk, education research and evaluation administrator for the Department of Education. “But it could mean that there’s improvements. … Not all yellows are created equal.”

The number of students who graduated within five years climbed to 88.7%, the highest rate in years. More than half of those students qualified for California’s public universities, also the highest rate in years. 

Chronic absenteeism, which hit record levels during the pandemic, dropped to 24.3%, down more than 5 percentage points from last year but still more than double the pre-pandemic level.

“I’m glad to see that we’re starting to turn things around, and that districts that had intentional strategies saw big improvements,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, which researches the topic. “But we still have a significant challenge before us.”

Los Angeles Unified and Monterey County both doubled down on attendance efforts last year, she said, by examining data, working directly with families to address the barriers to attendance, investing in after-school and summer programs and taking other steps to get students back in the classroom after the height of the pandemic. A comprehensive, data-focused strategy clearly works, Chang said, and the state should encourage all districts to adopt such an approach. 

Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, said that the state needs to take dramatic steps to jolt schools toward better results. She and her PACE colleagues recently released a study showing that collaboration among teachers, data analysis and extra help for struggling students can have “measurable impacts on student achievement.”

“There isn’t a simple solution, because the problem is that our schools (currently) aren’t organized in a way that supports and empowers educators to make sure every student learns,” she said. “The dashboard release will bring new attention to the issue, and will raise again questions about what, exactly, we need to do.”

“I’m glad to see that we’re starting to turn things around, and that districts that had intentional strategies saw big improvements. But we still have a significant challenge before us.”

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works

The number of school districts that qualified for what the state calls “differentiated assistance” — extra help based on poor achievement in at least two categories — fell dramatically, from 617 last year to 466 in 2023, primarily because of improvements in attendance, according to the state.

Smarter Balanced test scores were released in October and incorporated into the new dashboard. Mostly unchanged from last year, the dashboard shows English language arts and math both in “orange,” or below average. In English language arts, students scored an average of 13.6 points below the state benchmark on a 200-point scale, and 49.1 points below the standard in math.

Among English learners, the dashboard assigned “yellow” statewide, based on 48.7% of students advancing in their language skills. But Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, an English learner advocacy group, said the state should have higher standards for its students.

“We’re happy the state has returned to the color-coded indicators, but we’re very concerned that 48.7% is considered yellow,” Hernandez said. “We’d like to see more aspirational goals, like 80%. … We know that there’s a persistent achievement gap for English learners, but California is giving itself a yellow as if there’s no sense of urgency.”

Students who don’t become proficient in English are more likely to struggle academically and miss out on opportunities to succeed in college and career, she said. 

“This is important,” she said. “I think we need to have higher expectations.”

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