Sunday, August 29, 2010

Report card nonsense

The Ohio Department of Education released their annual report cards for every public school district and individual school in the state.  Every year I find myself thinking less and less of these report cards as I see not only how they "rate" schools and their districts, but how certain people react.  Basically, the state will come out and say a school or district was given a designation.  The main overall ratings are Excellent, Effective, Continous Improvement, Academic Watch, and Academic Emergency, which the media commonly references with letter grades (Excellent = A, Effective = B, etc.).  In elementary and middle schools there is additional criteria, that, if met, results in the school and/or district being rated Excellent With Distinction (which the state and media equate with an A+).

I've always been bothered because most people look at the overall rating and make their judgments about a school or district based on that rating alone.  They don't bother to look at the reasoning behind the overall rating or what caused it.  So in one way it can create a false sense of security for schools or districts that are rated Excellent or Effective.  Such was the case in Ravenna last year.  The district was rated "Excellent" by the state despite meeting only 15 of the 26 "indicators" the state uses.  In the other case it can create this false sense of alarm that a school is getting worse or in bad shape because of a particular rating or if a rating goes down from year to year.  I saw this a few years ago when Kent was lowered from "Excellent" to "Effective" and I read comments from parents online who were concerned the schools were getting worse and wondering if they should take their kids somewhere else.

For those who are wondering, the state uses 3 basic criteria to come to their overall rating and then have what they refer to as a "value added assessment" which is used for grades 4-8 and adds the "with distinction" to an Excellent rating.  The first criteria is a series of "indicators" that are based mostly on standardized test scores as well as daily attendance and graduation rate (obviously the graduation rate only applies to high school).  A school "meets" these indicators by achieving the state designated average or above.  The total number of indicators for a district is 26 (24 are test related) while a 9-12 high school will have 12 indicators.  The more indicators met, the better.  To be "Excellent" a school/district must have met at least 94% of the indicators (11 for high school, 24 for a district).

The next criteria is what is known as the "Performance Index".  The Performance Index is a weighted average that measures what percentages of students who passed the state test in different levels of understanding (from "untested" to "advanced") based on how well they scored.  The more students who pass as "advanced" and "accelerated", the better.   Untested students and those who score at "limited" or "basic" understanding hurt the average.  This basically tells us how well students are doing on the test as opposed to that they are simply passing or not.  The highest Performance Index score is 120.  To achieve "Excellent" a school must have a PI score of 100.

The last main criteria is "Adequate Yearly Progress" or AYP.  This is a Federally mandated criteria that to me is virtually unattainable in its long-term hopes.  Basically, in terms of the whole student body and amongst various sub-groups of students (minorities, gender groups, students with disabilities, etc.), there must be certain improvements in test scores.  The theory is that by 2015, 100% of all students will be proficient in reading and math.  Unfortunately, 100% is unattainable in the real world because it not only requires every student to take it seriously, but it also assumes that a student not passing a proficiency test is purely the fault of a teacher, school, or district.  What's scary is that if a school or district doesn't make AYP for 5 consecutive years, changes as extensive as replacing the entire administration and teaching staff or turning the school into a charter school are options.  Mind you, a school will "not meet" AYP if any sub group doesn't make it in a given year, even if every other group makes this alleged "adequate" progress.  How scary is that?  A school can be doing everything right but because of an arbitrary number the entire school could be completely restructured.  And seriously, I have a hard time believing that every school can be making such progress every year.  Eventually you're going to hit a peak.  To be "Excellent" a school or district must meet AYP in all areas or not have it for 3 or more consecutive years.  Even if the other criteria are met with "Excellent" status, not meeting AYP in any area (remember, not meeing AYP with any group means the school/district didn't meet AYP at all) for 3 consecutive years means a school can be rated no higher than "Continuous Improvement", the 3rd or 4th highest rank (equivalent of a "C" grade).  See how that can send the wrong message to someone who just looks at the final rating?

I'm all for accountability.  I really am.  But as an educator, I'm also aware that a student's successes and failures are not completely the result of the school he is attending or the teachers he has.  There are many outside variables that the state doesn't take in account at all or doesn't weigh as heavily as I think they should.  There are also many elements to what makes a good school and those are not all currently measured or even evaluated by the state.  At the same time, there needs to be some sort effective way to evaluate teachers and schools for the benefit of students and parents as there are too many bad teachers out there.  Unfortunately, though, the current system looks at only part of the picture and largely awards or punishes schools and districts for many things they do not have control over.  My next blog will go over ways that individuals can assess whether they or their children are in a good school with a good teacher.

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