The state has identified half of the school districts in San Diego County as needing support to improve their performance, according to the state’s annual school ratings released Thursday.
Twenty-one of San Diego County’s 42 school districts, plus the San Diego County Office of Education, were flagged for having at least one student group that was performing poorly in at least two different areas.
That’s up from 10 districts that were flagged last year.
Seven local districts were flagged for the second year in a row. Those are Cajon Valley Union, Grossmont Union High, National Elementary, Oceanside Unified, Ramona Unified, San Diego Unified and Vista Unified.
A total of 374 school districts statewide, or roughly a third of the state’s school districts, were flagged as needing support this year, according to the California Department of Education. That’s up from 228 districts last year.
The state grades public schools, including charter schools, and school districts annually using the two-year-old California School Dashboard.
The dashboard rates schools by giving them one of five colors to indicate performance in each of five categories: English language arts test scores, math test scores, high school graduation rate, chronic student absenteeism rate and student suspension rate. In addition to performance, the dashboard considers whether a school or district improved or declined from the previous year on each of the indicators.
Blues and greens are considered to be markers of high performance, while yellow is considered average. Orange and red mean that the school or school district needs to improve in that area.
Officials say more districts were flagged for support this year because schools were rated in two additional new areas this year: chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness.
In San Diego County, chronic absenteeism was the most common reason why a school district was flagged for improvement. All but three of the flagged districts need to improve in that area. In 22 San Diego County school districts and the San Diego County Office of Education’s schools, at least 10 percent of their students were absent 10 percent of the time last school year, according to state data.
At the same time, many San Diego County districts were flagged as needing support for things they were already being graded on last year, especially suspension rates and test scores.
Meanwhile, only four districts countywide achieved all greens and blues for the overall performance categories. Those districts were Carlsbad Unified, Cardiff Elementary, Del Mar Union Elementary and Solana Beach Elementary.
The latter three districts don’t enroll sizable populations of the disadvantaged student groups that are most often found to be under-performing in other districts. For example, Cardiff, Del Mar and Solana Beach enrolled virtually no homeless or foster youth students last school year. Del Mar and Solana Beach enrolled mostly white and Asian students while Cardiff enrolled mostly white students. At all four districts that got high color ratings, no more than a quarter of the student body was socioeconomically disadvantaged.
The dashboard is meant to give a more holistic picture of schools that focuses on improvement rather than punishment for poor performance. It replaced the state’s old system that gave schools a single number rating that was solely based on standardized test scores.
California is one of just four states that is choosing to not rate schools using a summary rating, such as a letter or number grade, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Critics of the dashboard have argued that using colors makes it harder for parents and the general public to compare schools and understand the school ratings. But state and county education officials say the colors add more nuance than just one number can offer. They argue it is better than a system that is based just on test scores, which are often more a reflection of a student’s family income level than of school quality.
“It really didn’t tell you much because it was just a score,” Steve Green, senior director of assessment, accountability and evaluation for the San Diego County Office of Education, said of the old system. With the dashboard, Green said, “you’re getting information for each of those areas. I think it’s very transparent in that way.”
Not only does the state rate schools on how they do in these categories overall, but it grades them on how well various student groups — including racial groups, students with disabilities, homeless students and foster youth — perform in each of the categories. Looking at performance by student group frequently reveals gaps in achievement even among high-performing schools and districts.
School districts qualify for support when at least one of their student groups gets a red color in two or more categories. Once a district is flagged, it has to come up with a plan to address the areas and student groups needing improvement, in conjunction with the county office of education.
Critics have argued that this new system of offering support to districts when they are found to be falling short is too forgiving to districts and lacks teeth.
But Green noted that three San Diego County districts flagged for support last year made it off the improvement list this year — Alpine Union, La Mesa-Spring Valley and San Ysidro. He also noted that some districts who were still flagged for improvement this year were flagged for different reasons than they were last year, which he said means that some had improved on the issues that got them flagged before.
Green said he thinks that is proof that the dashboard is in fact holding schools accountable and, unlike in the old model, it’s resulting in improvement.
“Having teeth in the old model didn’t actually create improvement, it just ended up with more districts needing support,” Green said. “With the new model focused on helping districts understand the root causes of the challenges and to address those in a continuous improvement model so that you’re improving over time is a more sustainable approach.”