School districts and cities are setting up community wifi networks, which would provide people with free or low-cost internet connection in an effort to bridge the digital divide. (Photo by Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris via EdSource)

Over the last decade, California adopted a range of landmark reforms to hold schools — and students — accountable for improving academic performance. These included administering new standardized tests aligned with the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards, requiring schools to draw up a Local Control and Accountability Plan, setting new priorities for measuring success and creating the California School Dashboard. But the the coronavirus pandemic has upended this painstakingly instituted accountability system. The following Quick Guide outlines where things stand in California. For other EdSource Quick Guides, including our most recent on “Grading Students During a Pandemic,” go here

Q: Will California schools be required to administer annual state standardized tests?

A: No. On March 18, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency order suspending standardized testing, meaning students in grades three to eight and 11 will not be required to take Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts, the California Science Test or the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC) for English learners this school year. These are tests that districts have been required to administer each spring. On March 27, the U.S. Department of Education gave the state temporary approval to waive standardized testing for this school year, so long as it offers the public an opportunity to comment. The state’s public comment period closed April 15.

Q: Will English learners’ language skills still be assessed, and how will districts determine students’ eligibility to be reclassified as English-proficient?

A: The test which is given each year to English learners between February and May to assess their progress in learning English (know as the Summative ELPAC), has been suspended for the current school year. Although some students completed the test before schools closed in mid-March, many did not. This means that results for those students will not be available to make determinations about whether they should be reclassified as English-proficient. The CDE has indicated that it is working on options for students to be able to take the test in summer or fall, so that their results can be used to help make decisions regarding reclassification.

Emergency legislation signed by Gov. Newsom in March (Senate Bill 117) offers school districts a 45-day extension for administration of the Initial ELPAC — which is the first version of the English language fluency test students take when they initially enroll in a California school. This typically happens in the fall but also applies to students who enroll midyear. While districts must normally administer the test within 30 days of a student’s enrollment, they now have a total of 75 days. This gives districts more time to assess students who enrolled shortly before school closures began, and who may be English learners. The 45-day extension expires at the end of the 2019-20 school year. Students who have still not taken the initial assessment by the end of 2019-20 will be assessed when they return to school in 2020-21.

Q: Are districts still required to adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) for 2020-21?

A: Yes, but the process and form will be different for 2020-21. On April 23, Gov. Newsom signed an emergency order that delays the 2020-21 Local Control and Accountability Plan deadline from June 30 to Dec. 15 to align with the date by which districts will adopt their first interim budgets for the 2020-21 school year. This will allow districts to craft their plans to reflect more accurate revenue projections than they will have this June.

The LCAP is normally a three-year plan, and those adopted by districts this spring were expected to mark the beginning of a new three-year cycle. However, the 2020-21 plan will instead be a one-year plan. Emergency legislation or regulations may be needed to craft a template for this one-year accountability plan, and to determine what kind of stakeholder engagement process must take place so that parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders can offer their input. Districts will be expected to resume the three-year cycle in June 2021, using the template and expenditure tables adopted by the State Board of Education just this January.

In the meantime, districts will still have to report their spending plans when they adopt their budgets by July 1, 2020. The Governor’s emergency order requires Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to adopt a written report to the community explaining changes they have made in response to school closures prompted by the COVID-19 emergency and how students and families have been impacted. This must include a description of how they are meeting the needs of low-income students, English learners and students in foster care.

Despite the changes to the accountability plan’s template and process for 2019-20 and 2020-21, Local Control Funding Formula spending requirements still apply. Importantly, districts will still receive supplemental and concentration grant funds as they have in the past, and they will still be required to spend those funds to support the needs of low-income students, English learners, and foster and homeless youth.

Q: Are California schools and districts still required to convene School Site Councils and other school committees?

A: At this point, requirements for school site councils have not changed. However, a March 12 emergency order signed by Governor Newsom authorized local governments to hold public meetings via teleconference rather than in person. California Department of Education officials have said this flexibility extends to school site councils and English learner advisory committees that meet under California’s Greene Act, which is a set of rules that ensure that school and district site council and English learner committee meetings are open.

Q: How will schools be identified for improvement next year? What happens to schools that are already receiving assistance?

A: Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, California has identified 1,819 schools whose students are among the lowest-performing in the state either overall or for specific student groups. These schools must have improvement plans and, in some cases, their districts receive additional federal funds to support improvement activities.

In approving California’s waiver request, the U.S. Department of Education wrote that California must ensure that schools identified for improvement in 2019-20 will keep that status in 2020-21 and will continue to receive supports and adhere to their improvement plans. This means that the state’s list of low-performing schools will remain the same for another year.

How the planning and improvement process will work, however, is still unclear. Schools that had improvement plans in 2019-20 may be asked to use versions of those same plans for 2020-21. Schools that have only recently been identified for assistance may be asked to develop new plans for 2020-21. The state is still developing these timelines and requirements. It also remains to be seen whether these schools could be eligible for additional improvement funds

Q: How will school districts be identified for improvement next year?

A: In addition to annually identifying school sites that need support and intervention, California also identifies Local Education Agencies — districts, county offices of education and charter schools — that need assistance. California has not yet determined whether or how a new list of LEAs will be identified for this “Differentiated Assistance,” which is required under the Local Control Funding Formula for LEAs that are low-performing for one or more student groups across two or more state priority areas. The state Legislature may take up this issue this spring.

In the meantime, the 356 LEAs already receiving Differentiated Assistance or more intensive interventions will continue to receive those supports. Differentiated assistance usually means that districts receive help from their county offices of education or the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence in identifying their strengths and weaknesses, analyzing root causes of achievement gaps and developing strategies to improve performance.

Q: Will the state issue the California School Dashboard in 2020?

A: State officials do not anticipate that they will publish a 2020 Dashboard. The assessment and accountability waiver granted by the federal government allows California to forgo reporting data on the California School Dashboard this fall. Although state law does not yet allow for that same flexibility, the state Legislature is likely to address this soon.

During webinars conducted in April, California Department of Education (CDE) officials said they cannot issue a Dashboard because very little data will be available. The state will not have English language arts and math results, and it will also be missing ELPAC test results for English learners, which is needed to compute the English Learner Progress Indicator (ELPI).

The chronic absenteeism and suspension rate indicators would each be based on a partial year’s results. The college/career indicator would be impossible to generate because some of its underlying components, including Advanced Placement (AP) exam data, will not be available for all graduating students.

Local indicators, including district self-reports of school climate and family engagement, could be available. However, California CDE officials anticipate that legislative action will include flexibility around the local indicators as well.

CDE officials signaled that they still plan to issue Dashboard in the fall of 2021. In order to generate the Dashboard’s color-coded ratings, which are based on a combination of the most recent year’s results (called status) and improvement from the prior year (called change), the CDE may allow for a gap year. It is exploring options for calculating each school and district’s change from 2018-19 to 2020-21.

Q: Will districts still be required to adopt a budget by July 1? Will they be able to revise it once better revenue estimates are known?

A: Yes. Districts and county offices of education will be required to adopt their budgets on or before July 1. Gov. Newsom must also sign the state budget by this same date. Unfortunately, neither school districts nor the state will have good revenue estimates when drawing up those budgets in advance of the July 1 deadline, when the state budget must be signed. That is because tax receipts reflecting of rising unemployment and a worsening economy will not yet have hit. Far better state revenue estimates will likely be available after July 15.

Districts will have opportunities to make revisions of their budgets after the July 1 deadline. Under state law, districts are required to make changes to their budgets with 45 days of the Governor’s signature to reflect any new information in the adopted state budget. This year, districts will almost certainly do that. What is currently unknown is whether the state might adopt multiple budgets or trigger mid-year reductions, as it did in 2009-10, which could prompt further district budget revisions. However, an August revision is likely. School districts will also be able to adjust when they file their first interim budgets, due Dec. 15.

While districts can make revisions, one question is how they will make revisions when so much of their budgets is tied up in staffing costs that are hard to trim back quickly. Layoff notices to teachers, generally referred to as “certificated staff,” can be issued only once per year, on March 15, and districts are now past that deadline. If districts face severe revenue shortfalls, many will have few options besides depleting their local reserves to cover their expenses — but as the Legislative Analyst’s Office has reported, these reserves are not sufficient to maintain service levels for an extended period of time.

Q: Will suspending the Smarter Balanced test scores and other standardized tests make it more difficult to assess whether students are improving academically? What other measures, if any, could be used to measure progress?

A: Without a doubt, the lack of statewide test data will make it harder to measure the progress that was made — or the ground that was lost — during this school year. This is especially problematic because many researchers, educators and advocates worry that school closures could cause a steep slide in student performance that will exacerbate already-wide achievement gaps. Without a good way of measuring how much learning has been lost, both overall and for each student group, it will be harder for education leaders and policymakers to respond with the appropriate investments and interventions.

Even without statewide testing this spring, district leaders and individual educators have many tools for measuring learning, from student projects and portfolios to interim assessments, which are shorter tests that allow educators to check what content students have mastered. To support distance learning, the state has made interim assessments aligned with Smarter Balanced — the standardized test usually give statewide each spring — available to all educators. When students return to school, educators will also be able to use diagnostic assessments to measure where students are academically.

Experts are cautioning that many students will return to school suffering the effects of trauma, the result of widespread disruptions in school-based routines, supports and socialization; heightened anxiety and also in some cases housing and food insecurity or exposure to domestic abuse. Will state and local leaders expand their use of surveys and other data collection tools to measure students’ non-academic needs and progress, which in turn can have a direct impact on their academic performance? That remains to be seen.

Q: What impact will suspending California’s accountability system have on California’s big push to improve student performance and close the achievement gap? 

A: It is impossible to know at this stage what effect the suspension of so many accountability provisions will have on student performance.

When EdSource interviewed State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond for its podcast last month, she emphasized that progress will continue, even if the process of reforming education through the Local Control Funding Formula is interrupted for a while. “The improvement of education that got planted with the Local Control Funding Formula, the new standards and new accountability strategies are pretty deeply planted in California. We will probably find ourselves rethinking some things as a result of the disruptions, but not in any way abandoning the progress that has been made.”

* This Quick Guide was written by EdSource visiting policy analyst Carrie Gloudemans Hahnel. 

Story originally published by EdSource.