California parents, prospective parents, education professionals, and other caring citizens often wait anxiously for the one day each year that they found out how their school performed in the annual API (Academic Performance Index) reports. Today was that day. Once again, San Carlos schools performed exceptionally well (although due to a computer glitch, the state hasn’t yet reported the API scores for Central, Tierra Linda, or Charter Learning Center). Above 800 is considered an exceptional score, and all SCSD schools have been above this level for as long as I’ve lived here, and they, on average, have continually climbed each year. This year our elementary schools all scored between 878-952.
OK, we can celebrate. But only for a few minutes. Because there are so many reasons why despite all of the hype, the API is most overused and over-weighted statistic in education. In fact, there is a significant “dark side” to the API — parents make decisions on what neighborhood they want to live in because of it, schools and teachers get punished for it, and most importantly, it detracts from the broader mission and responsibilities of public schools. Don’t get me wrong — I like having high API scores in our district, and it’s always a good sign that they generally creep upwards, but we all put way too much emphasis on it and misinterpret its meaning. I have written on this subject a few times (see Reaching for the STARs and We Knew It All Along), but there are a few points I want to emphasize:
- API scores often say more about the population than they do about the quality of the school – for example, the District has, on occasion, re-located a number of the Special Day Classes from one school to another. This is obviously a population that on average will struggle more academically than its peers. Guess what? When such a move happens, the API scores of those schools adjust. Does that mean one school is suddenly doing a better job or worse job teaching children? Of course not.
- Once you get higher and higher, the differences among scores become increasingly irrelevant – Many realtors have told me that new families moving to San Carlos have said they want to live in one neighborhood because one school had an API score of 910 and the other had an API score of 890. Even if API was the most important measure (which it’s not), that difference tells you nothing. It’s more likely due to a random variance in the population in any given grade.
- API doesn’t tell you how your child is doing, or will do — API is a “summative assessment” which may give you aggregate data on a group of students and point out trends that warrant further investigation, but it does not, in and of itself, give you any specific information on how to affect the learning of any individual student.
- APIs distract from the bigger picture — There’s an old saying, “you manage what you measure.” And unfortunately, API is one of the few things that every district in the state measures. Any educational expert will tell you that it should be only one of dozens of measures of student and school performance. However, we don’t measure all of those important things, so it’s hard to blame people for emphasizing the only major metric we have. Our state and federal public policy is based on a series of carrots and sticks related to that number (NCLB, etc.) and it’s not just a cliche that it encourages “teaching to the test” because of this singular pressure point.
- It’s so 20th Century — well, more precisely, 19th century. Our testing regimens are based on a centuries old model of schools where a group of students is lectured to by an expert (the teacher) and then asked to regurgitate what they’ve learned. Although in San Carlos we believe we’ve departed very well from this model in terms of teaching and learning, we still (by law) test students based on this very old paradigm of learning.
Although this problem is almost universally recognized, there is no imminent solution. Ideally this needs to be implemented on a broad (state or federal level), but here in San Carlos we will spend a good portion of the year discussing the definition of a 21st Century Education, and a big part of that will be what we can, and should, measure to gauge both the advancement of our children and performance of our schools. How do we measure critical thinking, teamwork, analysis of information, communication skills, and the many other attributes that will be much better predictors of our children’s success in the current era?
Until we make further progress on areas of measurement, I encourage everyone in our community to de-emphasize these test scores. There really is no material difference among our schools, and anyone who asks me where in San Carlos they should live, I say: “live in the part of town you would like to live in; the school will be excellent regardless.” The “API score” touches our emotions more than it informs our intellect. It’s no coincidence that although they are readily accessible, I didn’t even bother to highlight our scores here.