Think States Won’t Retreat on School Accountability? Think Again.

BY Lane Wright

Just a few hours after the country’s chief education official put out guidelines saying states no longer have to give each school a single, overall score for performance (aka a summative rating), Michigan announced it’s dropping its plan for an A-F school grading system. Instead they plan to use a dashboard–a display of high-level information kind of like the dashboard in your car–to report several different measures of school quality.

Michigan isn’t the only state backing away from accountability. Less than a week ago West Virginia’s state board of education voted to scrap their A-F grading system too. And in Florida, lawmakers proposed a plan to wipe out the research-based test that tells everyone if schools and teachers are helping students make academic progress.

Truth Versus Fiction
Nobody wants to be seen as weakening accountability, so they present arguments like, “this is based on feedback from the community.” But don’t be fooled: The “community” isn’t always who you might think it is. And not all voices in the community have the same type of well-funded and well-organized influence as the teachers unions and those who support the status-quo in education, or as those in Michigan’s mostly for-profit charter sector who oppose tighter tracking of student performance.

For example Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, complained against the state’s A-F grading system for schools saying, “It will give [parents] just one snapshot but not give them the details that they need to know in order for them to select the best school for their son or daughter.”

It sounds like he’s making a good point, but he’s not. Opponents of having a simple, easy-to-grasp snapshot of how schools are doing are leading people to believe that these details just wouldn’t be available. But that’s not true.

Michigan’s plan, like plans in every state where they have an overall score or grade for schools, uses several factors, like student performance on state tests, their academic growth, graduation rates, how many students are taking the test, and more to come up with a final grade. All of that information is included in the same report as the overall grade—and it has to be according to federal law.

Like an increasing number of education leaders, Michigan’s Superintendent Brian Whiston apparently doesn’t want parents to make any simple conclusions about school quality.

The Problem With Dashboards
Dashboards, have the potential to serve as useful tools, but they also have the potential to confuse and discourage comparison. To determine if one school is doing better than another, you’d have to pull the scores on individual measures (e.g., student growth, graduation rate, etc.) for each school and compare point-by-point.

This can work okay if there are just a few straightforward measurements to look at, and just a couple schools you’re comparing. But as the number of school-quality indicators grows, or as the number of schools a parent wants to compare grows, the task quickly becomes much more difficult.

Some argue the dashboard system is better because it offers, as State Board co-President Casandra Ulbrich says, “information people can use as opposed to an A-F system that creates complex formulas to determine which information is more important versus less important.”

I don’t think they’re trying to be ironic. But the truth is, the complexity comes from not having a single letter grade, or at least some type of snapshot telling parents how a school is doing. Without such a system, parents are on their own to figure out how much more important graduation rates are versus test scores, versus growth scores, versus test participation rates.

When a state like Michigan sets a weight for each of those pieces of the puzzle, then it can be challenged if parents like, but without it many parents will be mystified as to what the report is really saying overall about their schools.

The Power of Starting Simple
Regardless of what state you live in, simple, straightforward school grades empower parents. They offer a non-intimidating starting point for parents to start looking into their kids’ schools. They empower parents to ask questions, challenge school leaders and partner with their schools and their communities to strengthen schools.

Parents are free to trust the grading system, if they want, but the information is there if they want to dig deeper and understand why a school got the grade it got.

If those things are important for parents, they need to let their lawmakers know and hold them to it. Because if they don’t, nobody else will. #Voices4Ed #Edu_Post #Allkidsmatter #DetroitSchlTalk

Lane Wright is an editor at Education Post who is focused on telling 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.

Over the past six years of his career, while working in government and for education nonprofit groups like StudentsFirst and TNTP, he has specialized in breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand concepts.

During that time he’s interviewed teachers, students, and local school leaders. He’s spent time watching them work in the classroom and helped them raise their voices on issues they care about. He’s also helped parents advocate—in the news, and before lawmakers—for a better education for their own kids.

Lane is the father of three children who will soon be attending public school in Tallahassee, Florida, where he and his wife live.

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