The foundation of school accountability in California is state-adopted academic content standards that set out a blueprint for what all students are expected to know and be able to do at each grade level in each subject matter area.
Between 1997 and 1998, the State Board of Education (SBE) adopted standards for the core curriculum areas of English language arts, mathematics, history-social science, and science. The state then created a series of standardized tests aligned to those standards, largely through the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, which tests students in grades 2–11, and through the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). The state uses the results of these state tests to hold schools and school districts accountable for their students’ academic performance. It does so through two different approaches:
- The API system was developed by the state in the late 1990s and focuses on the improvement in student test scores.
- The AYP system complies with federal expectations for accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act ( ). It measures school and district progress toward a 2014 goal that all students will score proficient in mathematics and English/language arts.
Both systems report out progress for all schools in the state and for subgroups of students within those schools.
The state’s API focuses on performance growth
In accordance with the Public Schools Accountability Act (), passed in 1999, the California Department of Education publicly scores and ranks the performance of California schools through the Academic Performance Index ( ).
The API is a single-number index score given to each school based CST. (For high schools, CAHSEE scores are also included.) This includes scores from CSTs across the four core subject matter areas of English language arts, math, history-social science, and science. The various subjects and tests are given different weights in this calculation, and those weights vary by grade span. API scores can range from 200 to 1,000.
Each spring, schools are given an API score that is used to compare their performance to other schools of their type (i.e., elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools). Schools are also compared to the 100 schools of the same type that are most similar to them in terms of characteristics such as student demographics and teacher credentials.
The focus of this accountability system is ongoing school improvement, particularly among the lowest-performing schools and students. Schools get API growth targets both for the school as a whole and for “significant subgroups” of students. Results from the subsequent administration of state tests are used to determine which schools have met those targets.
Federal reporting of "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) charts performance against a set goal
NCLB called for a significantly different calculation of school progress that established the same target for all schools, regardless of their starting point. It also required that local school districts be included in this accountability reporting. The federal law established the goal that all students shall reach proficiency in English language arts and math by the 2013–14 school year and that states, school districts, and schools must make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward that goal. It also specifies a number of other details, including the specific subgroups whose progress must be accounted for separately. This includes students by ethnicity and family income, which California law had already required, plus English learners () and students, which it had not.
Results from the CSTs and CAHSEE are combined into a system of performance goals called Annual Measurable Objectives (). The AMOs—reported separately for English language arts and mathematics—are the most important factors in the measure of AYP. Student participation in test-taking (schools must test 95% of their students) and high school graduation rates are also considered. The system also includes one state-selected indicator, which in California was API scores. A school, a district, and the state as a whole must hit specified targets for all of these factors to “make AYP.”
These objectives were set for all of California, and each type of school (elementary, middle, and high) and district (unified, elementary, and high school) is expected to meet the same statewide target. The state had latitude to define proficient and establish its interim benchmarks of AYP prior to 2013–14. For details about how California’s revised accountability system reports schools’ progress, see California’s Approach Under NCLB. In August or September of each year, the California Department of Education releases an Accountability Progress Report for each school and district in the state. This report is based on student test scores from the state’s STAR and CAHSEE tests the prior spring and publicly announces schools’ and districts’ progress using these dual measures of accountability. It also identifies schools and districts whose progress has not met expectations.