Time to re-think report card ratings

Judging schools based on student academic performance is more art than science. This fact was never depicted more clearly than in the recent release of state report card data that gave the Kettering City Schools a rating of Continuous Improvement (a C) even though it met 29 of 30 academic indicators (see here).

The state expects Kettering to get at least 75 percent of its students to proficiency or above on 28 academic tests, while also having an appropriate attendance and graduation rate. Kettering met all these goals but for one (achievement in eighth-grade social studies). Further, Kettering saw its overall student achievement results increase from 2007-08 when the district was rated Effective (a B). 

Not surprisingly, the state's rating of the Kettering City Schools has flummoxed and angered local officials. The district's C rating is hard to explain when one considers Kettering's state rating is identical to far lower performing districts like Elyria City Schools (it met 11 of 30 indicators), or Cincinnati Public Schools, Columbus City Schools, and Akron Public Schools (all met only 6 of 30 indicators).

So, what's going on here? Kettering took a hit because it failed to meet federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals with two sub-groups of students - students with disabilities and limited-English-proficient students. What this means in practice is that Kettering schools failed to deliver students with disabilities (which make up about 15 percent of all district students) and students with limited English (which make up about 1.5 percent of all district students) to proficiency targets in reading. In fact, the district failed to meet these targets for three consecutive years. The district did, however, meet AYP goals with seven other subgroups.  

The district failed with a minority of students, but overall it delivered solid academic results for the vast majority of its students and in the vast majority of subjects tested by the state. With this in mind, it is hard to say the district's state rating of C is proportionate to its actual student achievement levels. In short, fair-minded people would have to say the district was given an unfair rating.

What should be done about this? Many will be tempted to argue that the rating for Kettering is evidence of a broken accountability system that needs to be thoroughly overhauled or even snuffed out. But that would be a mistake. My organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has been analyzing the academic performance of schools in Dayton and in other Ohio cities for six years. We've witnessed the evolution of the state's assessment system and have even evaluated it along the way. 

In fact, earlier this year we issued a report entitled The Accountability Illusion that reported "schools with greater diversity and size face greater challenges in making AYP" (see here). Kettering City Schools was punished for not achieving with some of its most diverse students. The fact that the system makes it obvious that Kettering needs to do better by its special needs students and students with limited English abilities is a good thing, and the state shouldn't do away with metrics that enable this evaluation. This transparency and accountability is important for ensuring all students receive the best education possible.

However, the fact that Kettering received a state rating identical to school districts with far inferior academic achievement across the board is a genuine problem. The rating confuses parents, students, teachers, and business and community leaders and it could put the district at risk of losing students and trust among voters and supporters.  

Ohio needs to improve how it rates its schools and school districts. The "Continuous Improvement" rating is far too all-encompassing and as such is largely meaningless. The state has put together a solid system of assessments and it now needs a school and district rating system that does it justice. Giving districts with significantly different levels of student achievement the same ratings seriously threatens the credibility of the entire system. It is time to right the accountability ship before it sinks in the rocky shoals of faulty ratings.

A version of this editorial appeared in the Dayton Daily News, see here.

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