Student panel offers expert advice to lawmakers on evaluating schools

If the state wants an accurate accounting of how its schools are performing, it should find a way to include student input in its Academic Performance Index, said those perhaps closest to the issue - the students themselves - at a state hearing Wednesday.

California should also create a statewide database where teachers can share and learn best classroom practices from each other. To curb the high drop-out rate? Promote programs in schools that combat bullying.

And, finally, to help cut down on the number of injuries and deaths caused by teens texting while driving, officials should incorporate preventative education in high school health classes.

These were the recommendations made to a Senate education panel Wednesday by an advisory group of high school students as part of an annual report to lawmakers.

Their interest in changes to the school accountability system comes in the wake of legislation adopted last year that restructures the API - now calculated solely on standardized test scores - so that other factors, such as school culture and environment, may be taken into account in evaluating school performance.

An advisory commission to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, saddled with turning the legislative goals into a workable system, has been struggling to find indicators outside of assessments that would provide reliable and consistent information to make up 40 percent of the API.

Members of the California Association of Student Councils' Advisory Board on Legislation in Education suggested Wednesday that the state incorporate student input as part of the API by including them on local review panels that are contemplated in the restructuring legislation and also supported by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Ultimately, every student deserves to have a voice in their own education," said Jakleen Lee, a student at Fullerton's Troy High School and a member of the council. "If students know that their opinions matter and are taken into account when evaluating their school, students will become empowered to learn and utilize their full potential in the classroom."

In their recommendations on improving school accountability, the student group also proposed:

- Allowing students to suggest questions to the local review panel prior to school visits.

- Evaluating the responses from the interviewees based upon a standardized criterion and rubric that assesses the academic composition of the school.

- Standardized evaluation criterion could include: teacher attitude and enthusiasm, organization of curriculum structure, returning tests and homework in a timely manner.

While lawmakers said they were intrigued with the ideas, there wasn't much consensus on how to proceed.

"This is a very controversial and very important topic - probably the most - and we as a Legislature have dealt with it and the entire education community has dealt with it for many, many, many years," Sen. Mark Wyland, vice chair of the education committee, told the students. "I love the idea of a student voice. I don't know how you would do it. I don't know how you would select the students, but I think that would be good at all high schools."

Senators on the panel, chaired by Carol Liu, also were supportive of the student group's suggestions for looking at ways to combat bullying in schools to help lower the state's dropout rate - so much so that Sen. Loni Hancock suggested a separate legislative hearing on the topic.

"We have lots of problems in schools, and some of them are related to money, but this one isn't," Hancock said. "Kindness is cheap. Reaching out a hand to somebody else doesn't cost money.

"It's what the school climate is, and it's how we do something that I suppose you'd call character education," she continued. "And how do we begin to infuse that in our schools. I would suggest to the chair that we might want to have a hearing on bullying at some point."

While the student group reported finding some studies from other states looking at a correlation between bullying and the dropout rate, California could take the lead by adding the category "bullied" to the subgroup units in its Annual Report on Dropouts, a state analysis of high school dropouts required under SB 651 (Romero), to ensure a state investigation on the link between bullying and dropout rates.

Once the data has been verified, the students said, the state should create a legislative committee to identify specific problems pertaining to bullying and eventually offer possible solutions with input from student representatives.

At the least, the students said, officials should consider incorporating questions pertaining to bullying in the California Kids Survey, conducted by the California State Board of Education, to better understand the motives of potential high school dropouts.

"There are many factors contributing to high school drop-out rates in California," said Sara Castro, a student at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science in Carson in Los Angeles County. "But as a group, we decided that bullying was one of the major causes of high school dropouts that we've experienced. I myself was a victim of bullying and I wanted to dropout because of the environment I was in."

Two other priority topics brought forward by the student advisory group were the establishment of a central system for educators throughout the state to share best classroom practices, and the incorporation of a lesson on the dangers of texting and driving into school curriculum.

Currently, the students said, there is no effective way for schools, teachers and students to receive and share best practices with each other. Teachers with great practices have no statewide outlets for these ideas, and similarly, teachers desiring great practices do not have a reliable source to draw from.

Also, while other states have begun to include texting while driving education in their schools, California has yet to do so. Health classes now include curriculum on the dangers of drinking and driving; however, there is no curriculum on the consequences of texting and driving, the students reported.

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