Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education

Accountability for Learner Outcomes and Institutional Performance

California Today

California has made significant but insufficient steps to instill greater accountability in its public schools. Beginning in 1998, the State Board of Education began adopting a set of academic content standards for all of its public schools. The standards specify in detail what should be taught at each grade level in the areas of mathematics, English/language arts, science, social science, and the performing arts. For the first time, there is no ambiguity about what is to be taught to all students enrolled in public schools. Until adoption of these standards, schools throughout the state offered courses that carried the same or similar titles but with content that differed radically. The consequences of this legacy have been evident in both the differential performance of students on standardized assessment instruments and students' differential eligibility for admission to the California State University and the University of California. It has also been evident in the persistence of demand for remedial instruction by students admitted to California State University and University of California campuses, students who have distinguished themselves from their peers by being among the top one-third or one-eighth of all public high school graduates in the state, respectively.

State policymakers are currently in the process of completing a determination of the level of proficiency desired from all students in each of the content areas. This determination is an important next step, as it sets the benchmark against which judgments will be made about the adequacy of student achievement as measured by the State's mandated test instrument. Although proficiency standards are expected to be high in each area, there is no expectation that student performance will, or should, yield a normal-curve distribution of student achievement. Rather, it represents the benchmark that public schools are striving to achieve with all students and against which decisions will be made about the resources needed to achieve that goal. Unfortunately, California erred in its decision to impose use of a standardized test, the Stanford Achievement Test Version 9 (SAT-9) as the measure of student achievement. That decision was motivated more by political considerations than by the alignment of the test items with the content the State decided should be taught in every public school. The consequences of this decision were predictable: initial student performance results on the SAT-9 were disappointing, complaints about the inappropriateness of the test have been shrill and increasing, and judgments about school performance have been made on the basis of faulty data. Efforts are underway by Department of Education staff to augment the SAT-9 test with what are being referred to as standards-based test items that are aligned to the adopted academic content standards.

In 2000, the Governor proposed and the Legislature adopted a series of incentives to further the cause of accountability for public schools. These incentives included monetary rewards for schools and school personnel that meet or exceed performance targets set for each school. It also included disincentives for low-performing schools, ranging from removal of the principal for persistent low performance to identification of schools required or invited to participate in the Intensive Intervention-Underperforming Schools Program (II-USP). Schools participating in the II-USP program, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, are required to develop plans and strategies for improving student achievement within a designated time period or risk state take-over. One unintended consequence of these incentives has been the perception by teachers of increased pressure to 'teach to the test,' even though the dominant test at the time (SAT-9) bore little relationship to California's academic content standards. More time has been devoted to teaching test-taking strategies and, in some more extreme cases, altering student test scores or compromising the security of the test itself in an effort to boost student scores. The transition to the standards-based test items should alleviate some of this concern and redirect teacher attention to teaching the content standards since they are what the test will be assessing.

Another unintended consequence of the State Testing and Reporting (STAR) system has been heightened pressure on principals, since they alone have been subject to removal if school performance did not improve significantly. There was no provision initially to grant principals the authority to remove or reassign teachers who were ineffective in promoting student achievement. Union-negotiated contracts that protect teacher employment and restrict reassignments on the basis of seniority further complicate the situation. This fact has hindered California's efforts to attract and retain qualified school leadership, because prospective administrators understand that they will be held accountable for outcomes which they will not be able to influence through exercising management authority.

Yet another impediment to effective accountability in public schools is the confusion of roles and responsibility for governance and oversight. California has four state-level oversight entities, without clear delineation of which is responsible for what, creating confusion for local schools and districts about what objectives they are expected to pursue - particularly when the interpretations and directives from these state entities are not always in alignment with or even complementary to each other. The result is an environment in which local districts and schools simply 'shop around' for an interpretation consistent with their current disposition for action. The state entities are: (1) the Governor, who appoints all members of the State Board of Education, promulgates an annual budget that sets forth priorities for education, and nearly always is the final arbiter of differences of opinion about education policy due to his line-item veto authority; (2) the State Board of Education, which is by law the policy-setting body for public schools but which has very limited ability to ensure its policies are implemented; (3) the Superintendent of Public Instruction, an elected constitutional officer who manages the California Department of Education (CDE) staff, and who has little formal policy-setting authority, but influences policy through its implementation; and (4) the Secretary for Education, originally created by former Governor Pete Wilson in 1991 by executive order as the Secretary for Child Development and Education, with a small complement of staff whose duties are largely duplicative of those in the CDE.

This confusion of roles and authority among the various state oversight entities more often than not contributes to finger pointing rather than constructive approaches to problem solving. This result is particularly the case when school performance falls below desired levels. Such finger pointing sends mixed messages to local districts and schools as to the State's priorities for student achievement and institutional performance. An additional layer of complexity exists when the role of county offices of education is factored in. By constitutional provision, every county has a county superintendent of schools and a county board of education, the responsibilities of whom are minimally specified in statute. In addition to approving the annual budgets of individual school districts, they have also accrued over time the role of providing support and technical service to local districts, directly providing some educational offerings in the instance of small school districts, and serving as an appellate body with regard to local family disagreements with district decisions. All but five counties have elected county superintendents. The responsibilities of county superintendents are specified in statute. In this confusing environment of overlapping responsibilities, it is virtually impossible to hold any individual or entity accountable overall for school or district performance.

Establishing an effective accountability system for public postsecondary education has been even more elusive than for the public K-12 system. This fact results in part from the different missions assigned to each of the systems and, in part, from the differing structures of each of the systems. There is no common body of knowledge for which consensus exists about what is expected to be taught to every student enrolled in a public college or university. As a consequence, there has been no basis for establishing a measure of student achievement; and the State has had to rely on auditing compliance with state mandates and guidelines, such as admission of freshmen from among the top one-third and one-eighth of high school graduates (for the California State University and University of California systems, respectively), enrollment numbers, admission and enrollment of underrepresented student groups, numbers of transfers, and degrees awarded. Even these measures of student achievement are little more than 'snapshots,' since they are not specifically linked to unique students or cohort groups.

In 1998, the California Community Colleges advanced a bold proposal to break this logjam by offering to provide data on specific student outcomes, aligned with its missions, in exchange for increased state financial investment. This proposal, known as the Partnership for Excellence (PFE) Program, was billed as a 'pay for performance' program in which the California Community Colleges Board of Governors would define a set of discrete objectives for numbers of students achieving transfer readiness, numbers of students actually transferring to baccalaureate degree-granting institutions, success of remedial education programs, percentage of students earning associate degrees and certificates, and increases in numbers of students served in workforce preparation programs. The laudable intentions of the PFE program were frustrated by the failure of the State to maintain its commitment to augment the community college's budget by the expected amount, and a budget allocation process within the Chancellor's Office that resulted in PFE money being distributed to each college as an entitlement rather than a reward for performance. In some ways, this outcome should have been predictable. The community colleges are required by statute to submit all policy and budget issues to consultation with a prescribed group of community college stakeholders. Moreover, constitutional provisions define the community college Board of Governors and its Chancellor's office as state agencies, while designating local college districts as local education agencies. As a consequence, any policy directive from the Board of Governors directly, or through its administrative staff (Chancellor's Office), is subject to a ruling by the Department of Finance (DOF) on additional cost requirements. If the DOF determines that costs would be incurred to implement the state mandate, the Chancellor's Office is prohibited from enforcing the mandate, effectively neutralizing any directives by the Board of Governors. Under these circumstances, accountability continues to be elusive within the community college system.

Imposing accountability for student learning or any other desired outcome on the University of California is also elusive, but for very different reasons. Since being designated as a public trust in the California constitution in 1879, the University of California has been exempt from direct control by the Legislature or the Governor. Any policy priority of the Legislature, as expressed in statute or resolution, is regarded as binding only if the University of California Regents, by resolution, agree to adopt or concur with the State's priorities. The University of California is a land-grant university and has an ethical obligation to be responsive to public needs. However, the 1879 constitutional convention sought to insulate the University from the vagaries of crass political manipulation by granting it constitutional status - a move that most observers agree has generally been a benefit to both the University and the State. It also has been an impediment at times to the State's efforts to obtain information on how public funds are being expended to achieve state goals and priorities, prompting legislative efforts to use other policy and budget mechanisms to leverage greater responsiveness to state interests.

The California State University is neither protected by the state constitution as a public trust nor affected by the separation of state and local education agencies as the community colleges are. Consequently, it has been subject to far greater control by the Legislature in the conduct of its affairs and deployment of its budget. This fact has generated great stress within the California State University system over the years and prompted a concerted effort by the Board of Trustees to achieve increased flexibility in the conduct of its affairs in exchange for being held accountable for providing evidence of the system's responsiveness to and achievement of state policy priorities. In the minds of some policy observers, the California State University's success in this regard has also spurred old aspirations to acquire a status more akin to that of the University of California.

California has had very little control over the operations of not-for-profit independent colleges and universities, despite the fact that they have been viewed as a vital component of the state's postsecondary education system. An attempt to incorporate these institutions in statutes to rid the state of private, for-profit 'diploma mill' institutions in 1989 was successfully resisted. Independent colleges and universities have argued that regional accreditation standards offer sufficient evidence of institutional quality that it is neither necessary nor desirable for the State to impose additional statutory or regulatory burdens on this sector. Nonetheless, these institutions have sought to be cooperative with the State and the efforts of the California Postsecondary Education Commission to gather and maintain data on postsecondary education outcomes. Highly prescriptive statutes have been enacted, however, to regulate the operations of private for-profit postsecondary institutions both to restore integrity to the degrees offered by these institutions and to protect Californians from fraud. The State has never achieved success in bringing these for-profit institutions into the fold as full-fledged members of the California's postsecondary education community.

For these and other reasons, including the various missions of public, private, and independent postsecondary institutions, and selectivity differences in assembling their respective student bodies, building an effective accountability system for postsecondary education has been a true conundrum for California. In response to the fiscal crisis of the early 1990's, both the California State University and University of California systems collaboratively entered into a "compact"with the Governor at that time to stabilize their funding in exchange for a commitment to meet certain performance goals. They have since renewed that effort with the current Governor in what have come to be known as "partnership agreements." While these agreements have been a step in the right direction, they have had two primary weaknesses: they have not been publicly discussed and reported widely, and they have failed to include any measures of student learning.