Article published in Investors Business Daily
The critical accountability mechanisms of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education plan currently moving into conference negotiations in the Congress hinge upon the expansion of existing statewide systems of accountability. But what happens when those systems are flawed themselves, as is the case with California’s Academic Performance Index?
To provide an incentive for schools to improve, California offers bonus funding under the Governor’s Performance Awards program. But the program employs some “fuzzy math” of its own and, in fact, some of the largest “performance awards” went to badly-performing schools – even to schools that dropped to the state’s worst rating after placing in the second-to-worst category the year before.
The index, in place since 1999, is based on the performance of students in grades 2-11 on the Stanford 9/STAR test. It employs a scale where the lowest possible score is 200, and the highest 1,000. It also ranks schools side-by-side on a ten-point scale — one being the worst score and ten the best. Using a formula developed by the California Department of Education, schools are then assigned indexed “growth targets” to meet the following year.
The Governor’s Performance Awards program made $96 million available in awards intended for schools that met or exceeded their growth targets in its first year. That year, 4,502 schools, over two-thirds of schools in the state, received the awards, which typically ranged from $20,000 to $50,000, although some schools received upwards of $170,000. But, as the chart below indicates, a number of Governor’s Performance Awards were given to schools that had actually dropped to a lower decile, and in some cases to the lowest decile, from one year to the next.
What allows those schools to be cast in a more positive light by state officials is that the Performance Awards also reward growth within what the state deems to be “similar schools” and also within certain “numerically significant” ethnic or demographic subgroups within the school. In Santa Clara County’s Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, Harry Slonaker Elementary slipped from the second-lowest decile among all schools statewide in 1999 to the lowest in 2000. Ranked against “similar” schools, it scored a 2 in both years. But as a reward for such dubious “achievement,” Slonaker was granted $43,247 Governor’s Performance Award for 2000-2001.
The two schools that received the district’s highest Governor’s Performance Awards, Cesar Chavez Elementary and Lee Mathson Middle School, remained in the lowest-performing category statewide for both years. But Mathson received $48,693 and Chavez was awarded $47,236 in the program’s first apportionment. Could this really be the sort of accountability for results that California policymakers, or President Bush, had in mind?
Several other important questions have been raised about California’s Academic Performance Index. A 2000 study by California Parents for Educational Choice (CAPE) described a number of problems, among them: school districts that inappropriately distributed advanced copies of test questions or excluded large numbers of students from different test sections. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that rising numbers of students whose test scores were excluded from school totals were responsible for much of the increases reported by the San Francisco Unified School District.
“We need to set clear goals for performance and demand that our schools get the job done,” Secretary of Education Roderick Paige declared in testimony before the U.S. Senate earlier this year. The Bush Administration’s education plan uses existing state accountability mechanisms as the foundations for its “No Child Left Behind” plan. But when those foundations themselves are flawed, as California’s is proving to be, the prospects for real improvements in student performance become increasingly doubtful.
Academic Performance Data and Governor’s Performance Awards
Grants for Selected Northern California Public Schools
School Name and District
School API Index 99/00
Statewide Rank 99/00
(1 = lowest, 10 = highest)
Similar Schools Rank 99/00
Target Index 20011 
Governor’s Performance Award Amount
Bardin Elementary (Alisal Union )
Cesar Chavez Elementary ( Alum Rock )
Empire Gardens Elementary ( San Jose Unified)
H.A. Hyde Elementary ( Pajaro Valley )
Lee Mathson Middle
( Alum Rock )
Frank Paul Elementary (Alisal Union )
Harry Slonaker Elementary ( Alum Rock )
Washington Elementary ( San Jose Unified)
 Data reported from state sources in San Jose Mercury News, January 17, 2001 , 4B.
 California Department of Education website, www.cde.ca.gov.
Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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