Former State Board of Education President Michael Kirst works in his office at Stanford. (Photo by Louis Freedberg/EdSource)

Stanford education professor Michael Kirst was a leading architect of California’s new accountability system based on multiple measures and the California School Dashboard that represents visually how schools are doing on numerous indicators. Kirst, a close advisor on education to Gov. Jerry Brown for several decades, was president of the State Board of Education when Brown became governor in 2010,  and occupied a similar position during Brown’s first term as governor in the 1970s. Kirst has argued strongly against trying to rate a school or school district on a single measure. John Fensterwald and Louis Freedberg talked with Kirst to get his views on why he is opposed to a single rating. 

EdSource: Los Angeles Unified is talking about coming up with a system to rank its schools on a 1 to 5 scale. Do you still think that a single rating for schools is not the way to go and if so, why?

Michael Kirst: I strongly think that that’s not the way to go for both technical and policy reasons. On our California School Dashboard there are five or six state factors plus some local factors. To reduce it to a single factor, you would have to decide on a weight for each one. How much would be determined by test scores? Would that be 25 percent? 50 percent? How much would be determined by student suspensions? How much by graduation rates? How much by English Learner progress? What happened in the past and in other states is they just grabbed numbers out of the air. Maybe test scores ought to be 50 percent and graduation rates 10 percent?  There’s no scientific basis for making these weightings and we couldn’t think of any basis for doing it that way.

Secondly, we also were very interested in measuring student growth year over year. How much would you weight growth from year to year versus weighting the actual test score in a particular year? There is just no empirical way to do this without making up arbitrary weights and numbers and getting a single number, which is misleading. It’s sort of like using the Dow Jones average for everything in the stock market. No reasonable investor would do that. So those are the technical reason we did it this way.

Thirdly, we wanted to set up a system of support for schools. Instead of a single number,we wanted to come up with a nuanced view of all of the many components and dimensions of the school around which we could design our system of support. A school may have good test scores, but its graduation rates may be terrible. It may have high test scores and poor English learner progress. We wanted to be more specific on how to intervene and help schools and support them.

EdSource: The single rating that Los Angeles Unified is talking about combines different indicators including some of the multiple measures on the California School Dashboard. It includes a measure of growth in student performance from one year to the next, and  how well schools are preparing students for college and careers. Isn’t that an improvement over the old system that was based just on test scores?

Kirst: It’s somewhat of an improvement. But I go back to how would they rate school climate? A lot of people think that should be given a low weight compared to test scores. Other people think social emotional learning ought to be given a high weight.  If you have multiple components, you still have to reduce it all to a scale of one to five. It’s  just a number that is pulled out of the air in terms of its internal components.

EdSource: If you put yourself in a place of a parent who wants to send their child to a magnet school in L.A. Unified, there are dozens of them. Wouldn’t a ranking at least be a start for a parent who then can look for more details if they wanted to on the Dashboard?

Kirst: We got the opposite advice from, for example, the California State PTA, which did not want to go to 1 to 5 scale, and really likes our dashboard. And so it’s interesting to see who speaks for parents. Various groups claim to speak for parents, but the input we got was that parents realize there’s more to a school then rating it 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. The overwhelming feedback we got was “tell us more about the nuances of how a school is doing.”

EdSource: The California School Dashboard has barely been in place a couple of years. At what point does the state start reforming this rather complex accountability system that you and others helped create? How much time do we want to give these reforms to work?

Kirst: There has been very little objection to the dashboard, and mostly praise. I’m amazed at how well it has gone, especially once we issued it in a clearer form last year so that we now have a much better school report than we had in the first year. I don’t see any ground swell of objection. I sense that this is not something that is running into much of a headwind. This  L.A. group is the first one I’ve seen that has really pushed back. And it is a long way from getting approved by the school board.

EdSource: But the school district has put quite a lot of work looking into this over the past year.

Kirst: If we were getting a lot of objections and a lot of views that we should go back to a single measure, then we would we need to take a hard look at this. But I am not hearing that.

EdSource: It seems like it’s human nature to want to rank things. I mean, we have rankings of refrigerators and, and athletes and colleges. And so it seems like there is a deep-seated impulse to want to rank things. Do you think that’s part of what’s going on?

Kirst: Yes, I think that’s part of what’s going on and our role as educational leaders and as a state that wants to be on the front edge of things is to push back from that. We’ve noticed that a lot of states have withdrawn from an A to F ranking system that was so popular because their people have said it was just too simplistic.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Louis Freedberg