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It’s Not Accountability If …

October 29, 2012

Calling the release of the A-F Report Cards a victory for accountability and transparency misses the mark on both counts. Taking some of the data generated by schools, ignoring other data, failing to discuss context, and producing a nice, neat letter grade is hardly transparent. For the reasons below, it also fails to hold schools accountable.

Discrepancies in socio-economic status – I pay a lot of attention to poverty because it’s a big deal. To simplify the discussion: it’s not a lot harder to teach a poor kid than a rich kid, but it is a lot harder to teach a class full of poor kids than a class full of rich kids. There are other variables. There are outliers. Broad generalizations don’t capture every child, and that’s what policy-makers and practitioners alike should consider – every child. In some households below the poverty line, children are well-fed, have hundreds of books to read, enjoy good health, and benefit from attentive parents. In some affluent homes, the opposite is true. When you look at hundreds of thousands of students across the state, though, the trends hold up.

Grade span disparity – If the accountability system is worth anything, schools at all grade levels will have an equal opportunity at high achievement. Looking at the numbers below, this didn’t happen. Secondary schools were much more likely to receive an A or B than elementary schools were. Saying that a secondary school with an A is outperforming an elementary school with a B may not be accurate – or at least if these results were meaningful.*

School Grade Elementary Middle School High School Total Count
A 45 43 72 160
B 292 273 277 842
C 272 226 96 594
D 81 44 13 138
F 2 6 2 10

Poor distribution of data weights – At the elementary level, student attendance accounts for 33 percent of the report card grade. At the high school level, graduation rate counts for 27 percent of the report card grade. Neither of these weights make sense. Schools can lose a letter grade for one data point.

No accounting for special circumstances – At the early October State Board of Education meeting when the report cards were postponed, one situation in particular caught my attention. A school that was adding a class per year (and had not yet matriculated a senior class) lost points for graduation rate. How in the world is that supposed to tell parents anything? This is a perfect example of why many schools have given parents the report cards and then gone back to their regularly scheduled programming.

It misses the simple things – Because every test is run through complex formulas, nobody can look at a report card and tell something as simple as what percentage of kids passed the reading test? If you want to give parents simple information, give them that – at the least.

For all the time and effort the SDE put into developing and promoting these report cards, they give schools, parents, and community members little to use.

*To be fair, API – the previous accountability system – had the opposite skew. Elementary schools had an easier time getting high scores.

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