California: Rewards by Chance

K-12 Testing

A study done by the Orange County Register uncovered a large margin of error on California’s test-based Academic Performance Index (API), used to dole out bonuses and sanctions. Calling the API “riddled with flaws,” the paper concluded the state really did not know if the schools receiving cash awards deserved them or whether other, unrewarded schools performed better. Chance, not genuine educational improvement, was the likely reason for many of the decisions. Test prep rather than real learning was also cited as a likely factor in some test score gains.


More than half the schools winning API-based awards in one year did not even meet their minimum required gains the following year. (API works by applying a formula through which each school is assigned its own required score gain.) Sixty-five percent of the awards went to smaller-than-average schools, which are statistically more likely to have scores change dramatically from year to year simply because a few very high or low scorers can impact a small school far more than a large school.


“It’s like a crapshoot,” said one teacher. As a result, the California process has greatly angered many educators. The anger was compounded this fall when budget shortfalls led the state to eliminate cash awards for teachers and schools. Similar problems and consequences are certain to plague the federally mandated “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) scheme.