Something new is happening at a batch of California urban schools. Students are being asked if they are happy at school. Can they keep their temper in check when there’s trouble in class? Their parents are surveyed about feeling welcome at school. Do they think the school provides high-quality instruction and high expectations for their children?

The recent focus on the social and emotional well-being of students as a way to improve test scores is gaining statewide traction. Civil rights advocates are joining parent and student groups in pushing the State Board of Education to consider school climate surveys in a new accountability system California is scheduled to adopt this fall.

So how did half a dozen school districts get ahead of the state on using surveys, data and other ways to improve teaching and learning?

The districts are members of a 6-year-old consortium called the California Office to Reform Education. In 2013, CORE broke ranks with the state over the issue of using classroom tests to evaluate teacher performance. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education rejected California’s waiver against penalties in the federal No Child Left Behind law and, in an unprecedented move, granted the waiver and $150 million to the districts rather than the state.

The waiver freed CORE districts from having more schools labeled as failing and gave them time to develop a new School Quality Improvement System for a broader measure of student achievement. Six school districts — Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Ana — are now using an innovative but highly debated approach to track school quality by measuring academic performance alongside non-cognitive measures such as so-called “school climate” measures.

Garden Grove, Sacramento and Sanger are also members of CORE but they are not currently participating in the school index.

“Our work represents a fundamental shift from a compliance-based system to a collaborative model focused in support of continuous improvement,” wrote Michael Hanson, superintendent of Fresno Unified School Districts.

Hanson said in an interview that districts are willing to have more indicators to better capture whether a student is learning and improving. Schools can intervene at earlier grades by tracking indicators of success, such as suspensions and absenteeism.

Long Beach Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Christopher Lund said the district has been proactive in incorporating surveys and using data to help schools improve graduation rates, promote college and career readiness, and boost scores. He sees value in fostering supportive environments because the data show there’s great correlation between emotional health and test performance.

“We’ve noticed a nice drop in suspension across our system,” Lund said. “We’ve actually noticed a nice drop in chronic absenteeism, particularly at our high school level.”

The approach, however, is not without skeptics and detractors who worry that correlation is not causation.

Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has done more than any academic to popularize social-emotional learning and brought the word “grit” into school lexicon, doesn’t support using such non-cognitive measures because self-assessments have no objective standard. She resigned from a Boston nonprofit that helped California’s urban districts create their current social-emotional measures.

In an essay, Duckworth and a colleague wrote that while research has shown that personal attributes powerfully predict academic, social and physical well-being, “our claim is not that everything that counts can be counted or that everything that can be counted counts.”

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University who coined the phrase “growth mindset” in learning, also worries that her research into boosting student motivation could be misapplied by parents, teachers and schools. She argues it’s unproductive to praise a student to make them feel good if they’re not learning.

“The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them,” Dweck wrote. She goes on to say, “I also fear that if we use mindset measures for accountability, we will create false growth mindsets on an unprecedented scale.”

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, a 76-year-old retired Stanford University professor who has served four decades as one of Brown’s closest advisors, is respected in academic and policy circles for his understanding of government systems. He is leading the school board in the creation of a new state accountability system.

Kirst says that measuring is difficult on a statewide scale and that he would rather support local school districts in creating their own measures. He wants to avoid a pitfall from the 1990s, when California was a leader in promoting self-esteem, a much-ridiculed movement in education circles.

CORE supporters acknowledge the measures aren’t perfect. But they hope they can be a model for the state.

Under a school evaluation system released in February, each CORE school receives a single score of up to 100. It’s weighted 60 percent to standardized test results and 40 percent to school climate factors such as chronic absenteeism and suspension rates. Surveys have also been sent to parents and students, although the first batch of responses won’t be incorporated into CORE’s school reports until later this year.

All CORE Elementary Schools

Here’s how elementary schools in six urban districts rank when judged on academics and campus climate. Ideally, districts want schools clustered in the upper-right quadrant to signal high test scores and an encouraging atmosphere.

Dashboard 1

Academic and Social Scores for All "CORE" Schools

A CALmatters analysis of CORE school reports suggests how well a school’s students perform on standardized tests correlates highly with school climate. And in an effort to directly reach parents, CORE worked with to post its school reports on the popular school search site.

Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said CORE’s index doesn’t move far enough away from rating schools by test scores. The union dislikes CORE’s approach because it allows schools to be compared to each other, which can unfairly shame schools that score low.

Instead, CTA says schools should be tracked based on their own improvement, not compared statewide in a ranking system.

The union has been resistant about tying student test scores to teacher performance because academic performance doesn’t properly reflect teacher quality and effectiveness. There are too many factors outside the classroom, such as parental involvement, that have greater influence on student success, Heins said.

California school officials are considering similar data and surveys being collected by CORE. Even though Kirst was reluctant to support school climate measures, calling the field “pretty embryonic,” the state school board voted in May to consider adding parent and student surveys to the state’s new measure.

Harvard University education professor Martin West published a March report that endorsed using survey results as part of the CORE index. He said the recent enactment of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, gives states greater control over the design of their accountability systems.

“What is important is that we learn from what happens next,” West wrote. “We need to let evidence speak.”

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Judy serves as hub editor of the California Divide project, a five-newsroom collaboration covering economic inequality. Prior to editing, she reported on state finance, workforce and economic issues. Her...