California Releases New School Dashboard: How Are Students Performing?

In the first look at how California’s K-12 schools have performed since the start of the pandemic, graduation rates have reached record highs, absenteeism has decreased significantly, and many districts have shown academic progress.

However, despite these positive developments, most of the 13 indicators used by California to measure student achievement have remained unchanged in the 2023 School Dashboard, released by the California Department of Education on Dec. 15.

Returning to the color-coded system used before the pandemic, the new dashboard assigns many categories a “yellow” grade, indicating a midpoint between high and low performance. The state uses a combination of current performance data and progress from previous years to create a more nuanced picture of academic achievement. Districts that receive a red grade, the lowest level, in multiple categories are eligible for additional support to make improvements.

The dashboard was not updated for two years during the pandemic, and last year’s data did not include the color-coded system due to the lack of previous data for comparison. This year’s release is the first to include comprehensive information on test scores and other metrics since 2019.

The dashboard was initially introduced in 2018 to provide a more comprehensive view of school performance beyond just test scores. It examines detailed data such as suspension rates, progress of English learners, career readiness, and breaks down the information by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (whether students are low-income, in foster care, homeless, or have disabilities).

“Yellow is not a favorable outcome in any way,” said Kimberly Mundhenk, an education research and evaluation administrator for the Department of Education. “But it does suggest that there may be some improvements…not all yellows are equal.”

The graduation rate within five years has increased to 88.7%, the highest rate since the state began collecting this data in 2018. More than half of these graduates are eligible for admission to California’s public universities, also the highest rate in recent years.

Chronic absenteeism, which reached record levels during the pandemic, has dropped to 24.3%, a decrease of over 5 percentage points from last year but still more than double the pre-pandemic level.

“I’m pleased to see that we are starting to see positive changes, and districts with intentional strategies have seen significant improvements,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a research organization. “But we still have a significant challenge ahead of us.”

Last year, Los Angeles Unified and Monterey County made targeted efforts to address attendance issues by analyzing data, working directly with families to remove barriers, investing in after-school and summer programs, and implementing other measures to bring students back to the classroom. Chang believes that a comprehensive approach focused on data can be effective, and she suggests that the state encourage all districts to adopt similar strategies.

Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, argues that the state needs to take significant steps to improve school outcomes. A recent study conducted by Hough and her colleagues at PACE showed that collaboration among teachers, data analysis, and additional support for struggling students can have a measurable impact on student achievement.

“There is no simple solution because our schools are not currently structured to support and empower educators to ensure that every student learns,” Hough said. “The release of the dashboard will draw attention to this issue once again and raise questions about what needs to be done.”

The number of school districts requiring “differentiated assistance” due to low performance in at least two categories has dramatically decreased from 617 last year to 466 in 2023, primarily due to improvements in attendance.

The Smarter Balanced test scores, released in October and incorporated into the new dashboard, have remained largely unchanged from the previous year. The dashboard shows that both English language arts and math performance are below average (“orange” category). 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.

Educational officials are pleased with the dashboard data. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond believes that these improvements demonstrate the positive impact of recent investments in K-12 education in California. In response to the pandemic-induced school closures, the state and federal governments have allocated billions of dollars to tutoring, after-school programs, and mental health initiatives to help students recover.

“This is encouraging news, but our work is not yet finished,” Thurmond said. “We need to continue equipping students with the necessary tools to excel, particularly now that we are successfully reengaging students and families. We must address achievement gaps in the same way that we have begun to close the gaps in attendance and absenteeism.”

Los Angeles Unified is especially proud of its adjusted four-year graduation rate, which has increased by nearly five percentage points to 84%. Additionally, a record-breaking number of graduates (53%) meet the admission requirements for the University of California and California State University.

“The progress we are making as a district is evident in the remarkable stories of our students who have overcome adversity, dedicated themselves to their education, and are now ready to make a difference in the world,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “Our students and families have faced incredible challenges since the start of the pandemic, but this latest achievement is a testament to the progress we are making.”

San Francisco Unified highlights its reduction in chronic absenteeism rates among nearly all student groups, from 29% to 26%. The district has prioritized attendance by implementing incentives such as schoolwide dance breaks, parent notifications, and services to support families in ensuring regular school attendance.

“Attendance is directly linked to student outcomes. If a child does not attend school, they cannot learn,” said Superintendent Matt Wayne. “We are pleased with our progress in reducing chronic absenteeism last year, but we recognize that more work is needed to support students in attending school daily.”

English learners in California received a “yellow” designation on the dashboard, indicating that 48.7% of students made progress in their language skills. However, Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, an English learner advocacy group, believes that the state should set higher standards for these students.

“We are glad that the state has resumed using the color-coded indicators, but we are concerned that 48.7% is considered ‘yellow’,” Hernandez stated. “We would like to see more ambitious goals, such as 80%. There is a persistent achievement gap for English learners, yet California is giving itself a ‘yellow’ rating as if there is no sense of urgency.”

Hernandez argues that students who do not achieve proficiency in English are more likely to struggle academically and miss out on college and career opportunities. She emphasizes the importance of setting higher expectations.

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