1. The API is not a test.

Rather, the API is a school performance measurement system that was first developed as part of California’s 1999 Public Schools Accountability Act. Each year, the state calculates the Base API for each school to establish a baseline for the school’s academic performance, and it sets an annual target for growth. Each summer, the state announces the Growth API for each school, which reflects growth in the API from year to year.

The 2011 Base API, released in May 2012, is calculated using each school’s test results from the California Standards Tests (CSTs — state tests designed to see how students are learning state standards), the California Modified Assessment (CMA), the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA) and the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE).

The 2012 Growth API, which will be released in September 2012, shows the school’s academic growth for the year. It is calculated in the same way as the 2011 Base API.

2. The API measures both school performance and improvement.

The API can be used to see how well a school did on tests in any given year, as well as to track school progress over time. Each year, parents can review a school’s API number, which shows how well it did relative to the state’s goal of 800, and also check the school’s growth from the previous year. To make it an accurate measure of school improvement, the Base API calculation only includes test results of students who were in the district during the previous school year. The Growth API is calculated using results of students from the current school year.

3. The API has very high stakes.

Due to the spotlight on API results from newspapers and the state, schools are under tremendous pressure to increase test scores and improve their APIs. While some argue that this pressure encourages schools to improve classroom instruction, others are afraid that schools will shortchange rich curricular programs in favor of test preparation drills.

4. The API measures academic performance, not school quality.

As a parent, you may have heard people say things like, “The school has an API of 750, so it must be a great school,” or “The API is only 550? What’s wrong with this school?” While these simple assessments are tempting, be careful about jumping to conclusions based on a school’s API alone. Before making any overall judgments about a school’s quality, be sure to look at its API improvement as well as other key factors, including teacher experience, parent involvement and special programs.

5. The API focuses on achievement for all students.

The API is designed to show how well schools are serving students across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. For this reason, separate APIs are calculated for each of a school’s statistically significant subgroups, which include any ethnic groups that account for a significant percentage of the school’s population. If “numerically significant,” APIs are also calculated for a school’s socioeconomically disadvantaged students (students who qualify for the subsidized lunch program or who don’t have a parent with a high school degree), English learners, and students with disabilities.

6. Schools that don’t improve their APIs must get help.

If a school doesn’t meet its API growth target and has one of the lower Base APIs in the state, it may receive grants and special assistance to help with improvement efforts. If a school continues to fall short of its target, it may eventually be subject to strong local or state sanctions, including reassigning the principal (subject to a public hearing), reorganization or even school closure.

7. API results are for schools and districts only.

There is no such thing as an individual student API. The API is based on scores from the CSTs, the CMA, the CAPA and the CAHSEE. The API measures how a school’s or district’s academic performance improves from year to year.

8. The API has changed.

It used to include just the results of the norm-referenced tests — in the first years, the Stanford 9 tests and later the CAT/6. These tests compared California students to their peers nationwide. In recent years the emphasis has shifted to include more results from the CSTs, which more accurately reflect what California students are expected to learn in the classroom, and fewer results from the CAT/6. In early 2009, the CAT/6 Survey was eliminated entirely as a testing tool in the state. 

In 2001-2002, CSTs in English language arts (for grades 2 through 11) were added to API calculations. Scores from CSTs in math (for grades 2 through 11), social science (for grades 10 and 11), and the CAHSEE were added in 2002-2003 to provide a more accurate picture of what students have learned. In 2003-2004, CST science tests in grades 9 through 11 and the CAPA in language and math in grades 2 through 11 were added. Since 2004-2005 even more indicators have been added. The API now includes the CST in science for grades 5 and 8 through 11 and in history-social science for grades 8 through 11. In 2008, the California Modified Assessment (CMA) was added to the API for grades 3 through 5. Grades 6 through 8 of the CMA were added in 2010.

9. The API is complicated.

If the whole topic of the API confuses you, you’re not alone. Educators and parents alike struggle to understand where the API comes from, how it’s calculated and what exactly it means. Here’s the bottom line: APIs range from 200 to 1000 and the goal for all schools is 800. The API is based on test scores and is calculated in a way that encourages schools to raise the test scores of the lowest-scoring students.

10. GreatSchools Ratings and the California API are different.

GreatSchools also calculates a rating on a scale of 1 to 10 based on California test results. There are several important differences between GreatSchools Ratings and California API Ranks:

  • API Ranks are created by the California Department of Education. GreatSchools Ratings are created by GreatSchools.
  • The API is calculated using results from the CSTs, CMA, CAHSEE, and the CAPA. GreatSchools Ratings are calculated using the CSTs only. For additional information on GreatSchools Ratings, check our frequently asked questions.
  • Some test subjects count more than others in the API.
  • The API includes all 5 levels of proficiency (far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient or advanced), each receiving a different number of points toward the total API. The API is calculated this way to encourage improvement in test scores. GreatSchools Ratings use only the percent of students who scored at the proficient and advanced levels. GreatSchools Ratings show how the percentage of students on grade level at a school compared to schools across the state.