Go for growth: How Ohio lawmakers can fix the school grading system

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In its version of the state budget bill, the Ohio House included language that would place more weight on student growth measures when calculating charter sponsor ratings. The provision requires that 60 percent of the academic portion of sponsor evaluations be based on student growth measures (aka value added), instead of 20 percent as under current policy.

The Senate should retain this change and take it a step further: It should be applied to district schools as well. Such a legislative change would ensure that Ohio’s ESSA plan places greater weight on student growth in the accountability system used to gauge the performance of all public schools. The Ohio Department of Education will submit the ESSA plan early this fall and now is the right time to fix the weighting system.

As we and others have pointed out many times, rating systems that place an overemphasis on “status measures” correlated with demographics or prior achievement (e.g., proficiency or graduation rates) will flunk almost all high-poverty schools just because they enroll pupils who initially lag behind.

Growth measures, on the other hand, are more poverty-neutral gauges of school performance. They look at the trajectory of achievement over time, regardless of where students start the year. Policy makers should place considerable weight on growth in school grading systems, and the House’s 60 percent approach makes good sense for all public schools in Ohio.

Consider how ratings are likely to play out for the Columbus City Schools (CCS) when the state begins to assign them overall A-F grades next school year.[1]

The top horizontal bar in Figure 1 indicates that, based upon my calculations, the majority of schools operated by CCS will fail under Ohio’s current weights (i.e., 20 percent growth and 80 percent status measures). A whopping 94 percent of CCS schools would have received an overall D or F rating using their 2015-16 grades, and zero schools would have earned an A. This is what happens to high-poverty schools when overall rating systems are stacked with measures correlated with demographics. Almost all are destined to be labeled as failures.

But what would the A-F ratings look like if state lawmakers placed 60 percent weight on growth? The bottom bar in Figure 1 shows the shift in the distribution of CCS school grades under this scenario. The percent receiving D or F letter grades would decrease from 94 to 76 percent—still a large majority but less than under the status quo. Importantly, a more reasonable 24 percent of CCS schools receive B or C ratings, though again no school reaches an A rating. Fortunately, growth measures don’t lock high-poverty schools into low overall grades—schools anywhere can demonstrate solid growth—and it’s within the control of CCS to increase the number of high-performing schools they oversee.

Figure 1: Projected distribution of summative A-F grades for Columbus district schools under Ohio’s current weights (20% growth) and alternative weights (60% growth).

Notes: Includes 108 schools operated by Columbus City school district. Projected ratings based on current weights use 2015-16 component grades and the state’s “summative” rating formula. Schools’ weights are adjusted depending on which report card components are available (e.g., high schools won’t have K-3 literacy grades). Overall school grades were calculated based on these adjusted weights, which provide between 20 and 35 percent weight on growth; see here for the variations. Rating calculations under the alternative system assign 60 percent weight to growth and then divide the remaining 40 percent equally across a school’s remaining components. This is the simplest implementation of the House’s provision, which does not specify how weights are to be assigned across other components. Not included in the figure above are the ratings for Columbus charters, whose projected grades would be similar to those of CCS schools

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School rating systems that rely too heavily on status measures have significant problems. If a high bar is set for proficiency and other indicators, they will assign Ds and Fs to practically all high-poverty schools. This distribution of school grades is not helpful to parents or policy makers. Consider these ratings from the perspective of a Columbus parent, seeking a high-quality school for her child: With nine in ten schools receiving a D or F, the state rating system offers little distinction in quality. Parents will not be encouraged to seek high-quality options—it appears that there aren’t any—nor are they deterred from enrolling their child in or even able to identify abysmally low-performing schools. Systematically low ratings for high-poverty schools can also demoralize education leaders or cause disinvestment in otherwise high-performing schools. It will also over-identify the number of “failing” schools, leading to invasive interventions and potentially harming schools whose students are making significant educational progress. These are serious unintended consequences of a system that is biased against schools serving primarily disadvantaged pupils.

Fortunately, there is a smarter way forward—a rating system that places more emphasis on growth over time. The House’s proposal to assign 60 percent weight on growth for charter sponsors is a great start. But it doesn’t go far enough. All schools in Ohio, both district and charter, should receive overall A-F ratings based on a formula that places considerable weight on student growth (“value added”). This approach will assist families in all parts of the state to better discern school quality, apart from the influence of demographics. It will also establish more productive incentives for educators to help all of their students—low and high achievers alike—make academic progress. Other states, like Colorado and New Mexico are turning the page on accountability by placing more emphasis on growth. Now it’s time for Ohio to do the same.


[1] Charter schools overseen by sponsors were assigned overall grades strictly for the purposes of the sponsor evaluation system in 2015-16. No schools—district or charter—have yet received overall A-F grades because of state safe harbor provisions; overall grades are slated to begin in 2017-18.

 

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.