(TNS) — California parents who want to know more about the progress of their children's schools will be given access Wednesday to a system that uses color-coded charts and graphics to offer a comprehensive assessment of classrooms that goes well beyond standardized test scores.
The new online portal, called the California School Dashboard, measures school and district performance using a variety of criteria, including graduation and suspension rates, progress of English learners and success at preparing students for college, as well as math and English test scores.
In the future, the dashboard will also include parent participation and feedback from students and parents on school safety and available support, among other things.
The approach is a big departure from the old accountability system, the Academic Performance Index, which ranked schools using one number on a 1,000-point scale based on test scores. Known as the API, it was suspended three years ago as the state phased in Common Core testing.
Educators didn't like the API system. Parents for the most part loved it and focused heavily on the score, often choosing a school based on it.
But boiling down a school's progress to a single three-digit number was too simplistic, and could be misleading, education officials said. They concluded that such metrics failed because schools are more complicated than that, with test scores reflecting only a part of how they're doing.
"The thing about the number is that it can lead to masking individual aspects that need work or that are going well," said Celia Jaffe, vice president of the California State PTA. "The point is to improve the schools."
The dashboard symbolizes a larger shift from a system that revolved around high-stakes testing to an acknowledgment that measuring education is a complex process, said Karen Monroe, the superintendent at the Alameda County Office of Education.
While it's human nature to want to know whether a school is good or bad, or if a student is succeeding or falling behind, the dashboard forces communities to have deeper conversations about what's working and what's not, she said.
"I've been in education long enough to remember the tyranny of the single measure," she said. "This shifts the narrative."
But the dashboard is not simple. It includes an array of information in numerical charts and color-coded graphics that offer visual marks for districts and schools -- red indicating the lowest performance and blue the highest.
It's a "high-tech report card," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a statement. "Just as our children receive report cards with multiple grades in multiple subject areas, the California School Dashboard provides us with many different measures of a school's performance -- where it's strong, where it needs to improve, how it's doing over time."
The dashboard has been a work in progress for three years, with the state Board of Education determining what to measure and task forces offering feedback on how the information should be displayed.
The data, to be released at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, include both the school's current score in each category as well as its progress -- whether that score has declined, stayed the same or improved. The dashboard can pinpoint potential problems, for instance if a school has a low suspension rate overall but one that's high for English learners.
"I think it's good to look at different things because you can excel in something and not in others," said Janet Schulze, superintendent of the Pittsburg Unified School District. "It paints a broader picture of a school district rather than one cut score."
At the same time, some school leaders said, some parents may have difficulty immediately understanding information that is presented on multiple charts, arranged in multiple ways.
"I think it's going to take a little education," said John Burke, supervisor of the San Francisco Unified School District's Assessment Office. "I think once people get used to it, it's nice."
San Francisco parent Raquel Knighten said she likes the idea that she can see a range of information about a school, from test scores to attendance on the new platform.
"It's good to know that kind of information," she said. "I think it's also helpful as a parent when you're selecting a school to see how that school stands, how they're ranked against other schools."
She worried, though, that the color-coded systems may be confusing -- and not specific enough.
"It doesn't tell me a score," she said.
The dashboard is currently in a field-test mode and in some cases uses data from 2014. In the future, it will include more criteria and current data, state officials said.
By this fall, the dashboard will include college and career readiness marks for high schools rather than 11th-grade test scores. While the test scores might be considered a factor in college and career readiness, the state PTA would like to see that broken out separately, Jaffe said.
When the system officially launches in the fall, schools and districts will also be required to add local measures to the dashboard, which would include things like the availability of textbooks, the qualifications of teachers, how parents can participate in their children's education and such other issues as school safety and resources for struggling students.
County offices of education will also include information on services for expelled and foster youth.
"It will be a far more valuable tool one year from now and three years from now than it is today as more indicators come online, as feedback is incorporated and as improvements are made," said Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education.
Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @jilltucker
For more information
To access the California School Dashboard after 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, go to www.caschooldashboard.org.
For a video presentation on the system, go to https://vimeo.com/207874984.
©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.