California Department of Education effectively repeals “parent trigger” law for 2015

Recognizing the need to give parents more control over improving their children’s schools, the California Legislature passed–and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed–the Parent Empowerment Act, also known as the “Parent Trigger,” in 2010. The first such law in existence, the Act provides a mechanism for parents to force changes at their children’s failing school. So long as certain criteria are met, and at least half the parents present a petition to the school, the school is required to implement the change demanded by the parents.

Under the Act, there are four changes parents can demand: replace over half the school staff; replace the principal and make other structural changes; demand the school be closed and the children be transferred to other schools; or convert the school into a charter school. But, the parents can only demand changes if the school meets four specific criteria:

  1. not be a “persistently lowest-achieving” school
  2. be subject to federal corrective measures
  3. continue to fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP)
  4. have an Academic Performance Index score of less than 800

It is the third criteria–AYP–that has been subject to recent interpretations that arguably could prevent the vast majority of schools from meeting the criteria to trigger the law’s application.

AYP is a measure that comes from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law requires states to implement accountability systems based on state standards and objectives. Schools that fail to make AYP towards goals for student proficiency are subject to corrective measures under the federal law. Prior to 2015, AYP was measured by looking at two indicators: student proficiency on exams testing their ability in English-language arts and Mathematics, and the exam participation rate of students enrolled at the school.*

In 2015, the California Department of Education obtained a waiver from the federal government to allow for different AYP measurements. Thus, 2015 AYP is measured by considering only the exam participation rate and the school’s attendance rate. But in order for a student to count as having participated in the exam, the student need only log on to the exam platform for each exam. It doesn’t matter if the student completes an exam, or even if the student answers a single question!

To understand the impact of this change, consider some data. There are approximately 8,000 elementary and middle schools in California. Thanks to the lowered standards for making AYP in 2015, about 95% of those schools made AYP for the year. Compare those results with 2013, when only 10% of elementary schools, and only 6% of middle schools made AYP. The stark contrast shows how meaningless the AYP has become in 2015.

One specific example shows what is masked by the change to AYP. Palm Lane Elementary School in Anaheim failed to make AYP in 2013 when students managed a 38% proficiency rate in English and 53.7% proficiency in Math. Yet in 2015, despite students managing only 18.9% proficiency in English and only 12.5% proficiency in Math, according to the State, Palm Lane made AYP by meeting its target of a 95% exam participation rate and 90% attendance rate.

The significant drop in proficiency at Palm Lane is the key takeaway from the trouble with the changes to 2015 AYP measures. Even though performance worsened, the school met AYP under the State’s interpretation of the federal waiver, and parents cannot force their children’s school to make changes under the parent trigger law.

And this situation isn’t just a one-year anomaly. The California Department of Education has already voted to petition for similarly relaxed AYP standards for 2016.

If California parents are going to be able to use the Parent Empowerment Act to force their children’s failing schools to change, then the Legislature must amend the law to prevent state bureaucrats from attempting to circumvent the Act with one-year waivers from the federal government. Otherwise the promises of parent empowerment will go by the wayside, and children at failing schools will continue to be trapped without any realistic hope of coming change.

*Different measures are used for high schools than for elementary and middle schools. This post only considers elementary and middle schools.