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New CA law will focus less on test scores as part of API

scantron standardized test

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A new California law will focus less on test scores in calculating the annual Academic Performance Index measures that are often used by schools and parents to rank their overall performance.

The Academic Performance Index --  a number that educators and parents have obsessed over to rank their schools' performance each year -- will focus less on student test scores and more on a school's overall ability to prepare students for college and the workplace under a new measure Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law.

SB 1458 by Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento became state law Wednesday. It limits test scores to no more than 60% of the API for high schools and at least 60% in elementary and middle schools. The remainder of the score will factor in graduation rates, students' preparedness for college or technical training and graduates' ability to compete in the global job market.

"For years, 'teaching to the test' has become more than a worn cliche because 100% of the API relied on bubble test scores in limited subject areas," Steinberg said in a statement. "But life is not a bubble test and that system has failed our kids."

API gives schools a score between 200 and 1000; it's calculated from the STAR and the California High School Exit Examination scores, with an aim for at least 800. This year, those scores are scheduled for release Oct. 11, said California Department of Education spokesman Paul Hefner.

The law says it's the "intent of the Legislature that the state's system of public school accountability be more closely aligned with both the public's expectations for public education and the workforce needs of the state's economy. It is therefore necessary that the accountability system evolve beyond its narrow focus on pupil test scores to encompass other valuable information about school performance..."

The law requires State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and the state Board of Education to develop a system of school quality review and determine which factors to take into account and how, Hefner said.

Torlakson will also consider methods to increase schools' emphasis on science and social science - those subjects carry little weight under the current API calculation. Torlakson must report to the Legislature on methods to do this by Oct. 1, 2013, according to the law.

"When the Academic Performance Index was first established, it was meant to be based on multiple indicators," Hefner said.

"The problem was essentially the standardized test was the only one that was the kind of easiest one to use, because once you get into graduation rates, and some of these other things, you face a whole bunch of questions about how do you incorporate that: What weighting should it provide? What's the goal? Is it 100 percent graduation rate? That kind of thing. There were various attempts to wrestle with that over the years, and of course there's always been discussions about refining the tests themselves."

Those are exactly the questions Torlakson will be tackling for this new API calculation, which would begin to be implemented in 2016.

When it goes into effect, the law will also incorporate a new statewide standardized test that is in development to address the new common core curriculum; school districts would begin to use that new test in spring 2015, Hefner said.

"We have a real opportunity, especially as we are remodeling our education system here in California, to incorporate the new 21st Century standards, the common core standards, which are really based on things we know students need to do to be able to succeed in college and go onto a good career," Hefner said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District supported the measure. That district has focused on compiling more data on its graduation and dropout rates -- and on improving both.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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