When President Barack Obama signed the new Every Student Succeeds Act earlier this month, many school leaders, education advocates, and policy makers of all stripes rejoiced. The new law replaces the troubled No Child Left Behind Act and, for the first time in almost 20 years, gives states much more flexibility to design their own grading systems and make their own decisions on how to improve struggling schools. Under NCLB, school quality was measured primarily by the results of standardized test scores; the ESSA encourages states to use multiple measures, including at least one non-academic metric like student feedback about their schools and teachers.
Now that the bill is signed, state educators are starting to try to figure out what these new measures of school quality might look like. But a group of nine school districts in California have already been quietly tinkering with a new school grading system of their own. In 2013, a collaborative of nine of the biggest school districts in California—in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Oakland, Sanger, Santa Ana, and Sacramento—got permission from the federal government to create their own formula for grading and improving schools. The timing was perfect, since all states are now scrambling to find more sophisticated models for measuring schools at a time when state funding is in short supply.