VIEWPOINT From the Northwest Current - February 22, 2017.
Remember “No Child Left Behind”? That was the federal education law that rated schools solely on end-of-year reading and math test scores. The law focused schools on academic achievement, highlighted previously ignored achievement gaps based on race and income, and propelled initiatives to close these gaps.
But with its reliance on reading and math scores, the law had unintended, damaging consequences: over-testing, narrowing the curriculum and school goals, and failing to recognize high-poverty schools whose students were making strong progress. Plus, its strict focus on test scores discouraged schools from ensuring the rich curriculum and healthy school climate that research tells us improve student achievement.
The result was a national backlash and a new law — the Every Student Succeeds Act, enacted 14 months ago by a bipartisan vote of Congress — that requires states to create new rating plans, and gives them more flexibility over how to do it.
The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education released its rating proposal on Jan. 31. Alas, the proposal — which is open for public comment through March 3 at osse.dc.gov/essa — takes too little advantage of the new flexibility and keeps much of what was wrong with No Child Left Behind.
A few critical issues:
First, way too much of the rating (80 percent at elementary/middle school; roughly 50 percent at high school) is based on reading and math scores. No science. No social studies. No arts, physical education, citizenship, foreign language. School climate — a school environment that is welcoming, challenging, stimulating and safe — is unmeasured except by the rough proxies of attendance and re-enrollment.
Second, too much weight is based on the proportion of students whose end-of-year test scores are proficient — not on how much students actually learned, known as growth. (In elementary/middle schools, just half of the test score weight is based on growth; at high school, none is.) This relic of the No Child Left Behind era means that in schools where students enter far behind (read: high-poverty), even if students progress greatly but miss the proficiency threshold by a hair, the school could get a low rating. As Michael Hanson, director of Brookings’ Brown Center on Education, wrote about these two ways to judge school quality, “there is growing consensus in
the education research community that growth measures are generally more appropriate than proficiency measures for evaluating school performance.”
This is no wonky detail: In D.C., a low-rated school faces enrollment declines, which lead to reduced school budgets, weaker programs and further enrollment declines — a death spiral. Why, given the flexibility to do otherwise, would we judge schools in a way that leading experts reject — and that could wound effective schools?
Third, the proposal calls for aggregating mathematically and theoretically complex measures into a single rating of one to five stars, making it difficult for parents to know what’s behind the scores. Is this a four-star school because kids learn a lot — or because they started the year with high scores? Are these two stars because students learned little — or because they began way behind?
The plan must be fixed. How?
First, let’s go beyond reading and math and add a measure of academic well-roundedness. Do all kids get adequate exposure to science, social studies, arts? Does the school offer dual language immersion or an International Baccalaureate program? By counting these in our rating system, we can signal schools that these efforts matter.
Second, let’s replace the one-to-five-star system with an easy-to-read “dashboard” that clearly and separately reports school scores on proficiency, growth, well-roundedness and other indicators — a great idea proposed by participants at a recent community meeting. This would empower families to use the rating to focus on the factors of greatest importance to them.
But if the current rubric is retained, the weight on reading and math scores must be reduced to between 60 and 65 percent, and growth and proficiency must be calibrated to ensure that effective schools aren’t given misleadingly low ratings.
Either way, a commitment must be made to include in the future a valid measure of school cli- mate based on sound, research-based surveys. (The proposal offers a welcome start by adding schools to a climate-survey pilot.)
Unchanged, the proposed ratings won’t fix what’s wrong with the old system. But, with these common-sense fixes, we can start to remedy the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind, while making academic achievement job No. 1. Then, we can work diligently next year to make further improvements for implementation in school year 2018-19.
Ruth Wattenberg is the Ward 3 member of the D.C. State Board of Education.