It came up during the Senate confirmation hearing for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – the debate over rating a school’s performance by student proficiency or by academic growth.
It is an especially timely topic in the District because the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is proposing to amend how it rates schools. OSSE representatives gave a presentation on the proposed changes on February 8th at Wilson High. The proposal maintains a great emphasis on reading and math test scores. Many of the attendees questioned this emphasis and pointed out that the focus on math and reading had increasingly narrowed the curriculum and focus in schools.
Others recommended separating a school’s proficiency rating from growth, recognizing that growth may be a better measure of the quality of the instruction since proficiency often is just a measure of the socio-economic status of the students in a particular school. Still others wanted greater weight for the school’s culture and requested that OSSE develop a school-wide survey. OSSE representatives responded that they have been piloting such a survey, but it is not ready for primetime.
Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 representative on DC’s State Board of Education, writes here about the opportunity we now have to shape the debate. Read her take below (adapted from her most recent newsletter), check out OSSE’s draft plan here – then tell OSSE what YOU think by March 3rd. Email your comments or take this survey.
How should we rate our schools?
by Ruth Wattenberg
School rating systems don’t teach kids or provide schools with needed resources. But they matter, a lot.
The way in which schools are rated can encourage – or impede – good school programs and practices. For many years, DC’s school rating system, with its virtually complete emphasis on reading and math test scores, has been largely dictated by the old No Child Left Behind law. Fortunately, the replacement law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gives all states (including DC) the chance to revise this system.
The current system rates schools narrowly on reading/math test scores
The parents, educators and residents that I speak to around the city believe that academic achievement is the top priority and that reading and math are fundamental. But, they also believe schools must be much more: The emphasis on reading and math test scores is causing other parts of the curriculum (social studies, science, arts) to be squeezed out. Testing is taking too much time, and the hyper-focus on it is damaging school culture. School environment and culture matter too – very much. They want their schools to have lively and engaging classes, more writing, a concern with building citizenship and a taste for skeptical, critical thinking, as well as a school culture that is welcoming, nurturing, safe, orderly, and challenging.
New law gives states/DC more flexibility in judging school quality
Since No Child Left Behind went into effect in the early 2000’s, every state, including DC, was required to adopt a school evaluation system in which schools were rated and held accountable based on the proportion of students who reached the “Proficient” level on math and reading tests.
Bipartisan dissatisfaction with NCLB, including increasing dismay with over-testing, led Congress to replace NCLB with the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) at the end of 2015. The law gives states more latitude to determine how they will hold their schools accountable. Here are a few examples of the new law’s flexibility:
1. The new law allows states to rate schools on more than just reading and math test scores.
In the words of John King, President Obama’s Secretary of Education:
Done well and thoughtfully, assessments provide vital information… and identify the gaps that must be addressed to ensure equity. But in some places, an exclusive emphasis on the tested subjects drove a narrowing of what was taught and learned; worse, test prep and narrowly defined “time on task” sometimes came to replace a diversity of classes.
“The good news here is that, with the passage of Every Student Succeeds Act… the opportunity to widen how we understand educational excellence is suddenly ripe.”
2. The new law requires states to include a non-test measure of school quality, for example of “school climate”
Test scores provide extremely important information about how much students know. But, whether they’re learning – and at what rate – depends on other factors, including what’s known as school “culture” or climate. A recent research review of many school climate studies indicates that schools with a positive climate “have the potential to narrow achievement gaps among students of different [socio-economic] backgrounds and between students with stronger and weaker academic abilities.”
In cities like DC, struggling with terrible achievement gaps, putting some focus on school climate makes a great deal of sense – and the law supports that direction. Plus, a climate measurement can signal schools that while achievement is paramount, a positive school culture promotes achievement – and is well worth investing in for its own sake.
3. The new law allows emphasis on student “growth” over “proficiency.”
Yup. It’s wonky. But, as former comedian and now-Senator Al Franken told Education Secretary-Designate Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing, it’s super important! The upside of DeVos’s befuddlement is the outpouring from researchers and writers on the meaning and importance of emphasizing growth when ranking schools.
Urban Institute researcher Matt Chingos wrote that whether a student reaches a proficiency threshold or not reflects not just what students learn a school “but also the knowledge they brought when they enrolled,” and that growth measures are helpful in “correcting for that by examining the progress students make while enrolled at a given school.”
Writing for The Root, educator Kelly Wickham Hurst explained that when a school suddenly enrolls many new students with extremely low reading levels (in Hurst’s example, previously home-schooled students), scores fall. “Schools get punished in the proficiency model, and that’s no accident,” she says, arguing that charters/private schools are helped when proficiency-based scores depict regular schools as failures.
Interestingly, though, the most scathing indictment of overusing proficiency scores comes from Matt Baum, on the website of T74, a strong advocate of school choice:
The school could be doing a great job helping kids improve, but if they start out at a very low level, that might not show up on proficiency measures. Put simply, proficiency rewards schools for the students they take in, but not necessarily for how they teach students once they’re there.
“[J]udging schools based on a measure that is largely outside of their control, as proficiency would do, can lead to a host of negative consequences
“Most simply, the wrong schools may receive accolades or sanctions. If a school with low proficiency but high growth gets closed down for allegedly poor performance, students are unlikely to benefit.”
“Since proficiency scores are highly correlated with poverty, using them to rate schools inevitably means that low-income schools will, by and large, get the worst scores. This may make such schools less desirable places to work, since they face stigma and accountability pressure, potentially driving away good teachers from the schools that need them most.”
That’s what the law allows. Now it’s up to us.
Each state (including DC) must come up with its own system of evaluating schools. Under DC law, the initial proposal for how schools should be rated is developed and issued by OSSE. That proposal then stands for approval or rejection by the State Board of Education (SBOE). OSSE issued an initial draft in October, which the SBOE strongly critiqued. It presented a more detailed proposal to the SBOE in January.
In both drafts, 80% of the rating is based on reading and math test scores, proficiency gets as much weight as growth (in high school, growth doesn’t count at all), and the only measurements of school environment included are attendance and re-enrollment.