Questioning suspension rates as a fair performance tool

Questioning suspension rates as a fair performance tool

(Calif.) The California State Board of Education continues its search for school and student performance measures that go beyond test scores, a process that literally has gone on for years but has taken on new urgency since the passage of the Every Students Succeeds Act.

Now one of the more promising measurement options – school suspension rates – is being questioned given that the policies governing its use differ from district to district.

“There is a statutory definition for suspensions that applies to school districts and county offices of education,” staff from the California Department of Education said in a memo to the board last month. “But local policies and practices regarding the application of the legal authority to suspend students vary, raising some question about how comparable the suspension rates are across the state.”

Still, that’s not a good reason to discard the measure, said Brian Lee, California state director at Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nationally-based, nonpartisan organization made up of nearly 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys and other law enforcement officials.

Lee, along with representatives of the Berkeley Unified School District, Black Parallel School Board, Dolores Huerta Foundation, National Center for Youth Law, Our Family Coalition and Public Counsel -- argued in a letter to the board earlier this month that the suspension rate remains an important accountability measure regardless of how the disciplinary policies apply.

“While schools vary in the reasons why they suspend students, this does not create any variability in how student suspensions are counted,” the advocates wrote. “The variability in policy is the reason measuring suspension rate across the schools and districts is critical to keeping them accountable.”

Unlike most states, California is well down the road toward building a new accountability system that includes performance indicators other than just test scores. The Local Control Accountability Plans, required of districts since 2013-14, includes a long list of performance measures intended to illustrate a district’s academic success, community and parent involvement and educational climate.

Specifically, ESSA requires states to create and implement a single accountability system that will measure student performance down to the subgroup level. States are given a lot of flexibility on how and what to build but the system must include growth in academic achievement for K-through 8th grades; high school graduation rates; progress in achieving proficiency among English-language learners and at least one additional indicator of school quality that is valid, reliable and comparable to districts statewide.

In its memo to the board, CDE staff provided a review of several options that could fulfil newly established requirements in the ESSA.

The degree to which a district met facility standards set in the landmark Williams lawsuit, for example, is one option. College and career readiness is another, and a third is the suspension rate, but staff noted that because discipline policies vary district to district – the numbers might not be comparable.

California officials appear to be interested in using the middle school dropout rate as the academic measure for grades K-through-8 but there is no agreement on the final, non-academic measure that would apply to all schools.

Arguments in favor of using the Williams lawsuit revolve around the many, easily measured policy questions: Whether teachers are appropriately assigned; whether students have access to good instructional materials, and whether a school’s facilities are in good repair.

Creating a college and career readiness indicator has proven to be much more difficult. Counting the number of students enrolled in college prep courses or who have taken university entrance exams could reflect college readiness but assessing whether a non-college bound student is ready for the work place has turned out to be far more problematic.

Suspension rates, on the other hand, are easily identified and collected. There is also growing concern that schools too often resort to disciplinary actions that take students out of the classroom.

More than three million students are suspended or expelled every year, according to federal data, and minority students as well as students with disabilities are the groups most often sanctioned.

It is exactly that point that Lee and his colleagues made in their letter to the board. That is, dismissing suspension rates because the policies that govern their use vary is “the same as dismissing reading scores as a key indicator because schools and districts have varying    methods of reading instruction.”

The advocates say knowing “which schools and districts are successful at keeping suspension rates low for all students will help inform the state as to which local policies and practices are effective at addressing unwanted student behaviors and keeping students in class.”    

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