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School Quality

Here's the One Thing We Just Can’t Agree on When It Comes to Schools

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you they want their child to go to a good school. But ask them what makes a good school, and how do we decide what’s good, and that’s where all sorts of different ideas emerge. Over the last few weeks this idea of measuring just how good schools are and just what to do about it has been splashing around in digital ink all across the country. Indiana frustrated some of its residents when state leaders decided to issue two letter grades for each school: One based on the Hoosier State’s idea of a good school, and one designed to meet federal requirements that the state didn’t want to blend into their system. Florida faced a similar problem. The U.S. Department of Education rejected their first plan because it didn’t show how the performance of specific groups of students (minorities, students with disabilities, low-income students, and English language learners) would factor into the state’s school accountability plan. Florida education leaders fiddled with the plan and decided they’re still not going to mess with the letter grade system, and they’re not going to give schools two scores like Indiana. Instead they’ll factor those students into the formula that decides which schools need the state to step in and help. The Sunshine State should find out soon if their second attempt will pass federal muster. While Georgia’s system for tracking school performance is all set, some education thinkers and leaders there, well, in Atlanta mostly, are trying to figure out if test scores are a fair way to judge schools and if the tests really help students. The state’s first online charter school, Graduation Achievement Charter High School, is shutting down because of poor performance, but it’s superintendent says Georgia’s school accountability system is flawed: It doesn’t recognize that most of her kids are starting two grade-levels behind when they first walk through their digital doors. The value of tests is being tested in other parts of the country too. In Rhode Island, a mom and former teacher is warning against those who say test scores don’t matter. In defending a school with a bad reputation, students from Roger Williams Middle school argued that the test scores shouldn’t define the school. They’re partly right. But when only 7 percent of students there can read at grade level, and only three percent can do math, those test scores might be the clearest signal that kids there are in trouble.

The Nation's Report Card

The fact is, we make comparisons all the time about the quality of our schools, even though we can’t always agree on how to define quality. The gold standard in our country is the Nation’s Report Card, also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP). It’s the one test that comes out every two years and shows us if schools are getting better, getting worse, or staying the same. It also lets us compare states and gives us clues to figure out what’s working. It’s literally a goldmine of data; the more you dig, the more you get. According to a recent report comparing states tests to the Nation’s Report Card, many state tests still consider students "proficient" when they're really performing at a "basic" or below "basic" level on the NAEP test, but that may be changing. Some states, particularly those that are using the PARCC assessment, are getting closer to that higher standard. And while higher standards are harder, they’re also more likely to improve the performance of students and better equip them to live the lives they choose, rather than having it chosen for them. My takeaway from all the school accountability news over the last couple weeks is that a lot of people care about getting this right. There seems to be a lot of hand wringing over tests, but for me it’s pretty straightforward: Tests are the most prominent signal of student and school performance, but they should be taken in context of other signals like high school graduation rates, how many are getting into college, and what people who go there say about their schools. We don’t need to abandon tests because they’re an incomplete snapshot of a student’s performance on a particular day. We can use that information and put it on the table with everything else we can reasonably think to measure. So let’s keep having these discussions. Let’s keep talking about how good our schools are, how we know if they’re good, and what we can do when they’re not serving our students well. And as we’re listening to each other and making decisions, let’s make what’s good for kids our guiding star.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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