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    Another voice: Rating performance or punishing poverty?

     

    HoustonChronicle-2

    Houston Chronicle – May 11, 2015

    Once again, the Texas Legislature is flirting with the idea of rating the performance of our state’s public schools with a single, composite A-F grade for each campus.

    Recently, the A-F rating system was jammed into Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock’s otherwise positive accountability bill (HB 2804) despite significant reservations by members of the House Public Education Committee.

    Advocates for an A-F rating system for public schools, taking their script from a well-fingered national playbook, argue that A-F grades are easier to understand, and are “familiar” and “transparent.” The key question is whether an A-F rating system actually serves those goals.

    Once again, the Texas Legislature is flirting with the idea of rating the performance of our state’s public schools with a single, composite A-F grade for each campus.

    Recently, the A-F rating system was jammed into Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock’s otherwise positive accountability bill (HB 2804) despite significant reservations by members of the House Public Education Committee.

    Advocates for an A-F rating system for public schools, taking their script from a well-fingered national playbook, argue that A-F grades are easier to understand, and are “familiar” and “transparent.” The key question is whether an A-F rating system actually serves those goals.

    Research on implementation of A-F rating schemes in Florida, North Carolina and Maine found that campus grades are highly correlated not to performance, but to poverty.

    In North Carolina, 89.7 percent of campuses rated “A” had less than 50 percent of their students in poverty, while 97.9 percent of campuses rated “D” and 100 percent of the campuses rated “F” had poverty levels of greater than 50 percent.

    Matthew DiCarlo, writing for the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C., reached similar conclusions on Florida’s application of A-F campus ratings. After reviewing the 2012 ratings, DiCarlo notes that:

    So, according to Florida’s system, almost every single low-performing school in the state is located in a higher-poverty area, whereas almost every single school serving low-poverty students is a high performer. This is not plausible… Accountability systems can be valuable to the extent that they identify both ineffective schools and well-functioning schools with lower-performing students in need of additional resources and support. But only if the system is capable of distinguishing between the two.

    After reviewing the 2014 Florida ratings, DiCarlo found, “[t]]he end result of the Florida grading system is that the schools with the lowest poverty rates are almost guaranteed a good grade, and most of the poorest schools receive a grade of C or lower.”

    While A-F grades certainly are “familiar,” research by the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University on that state’s implementation of A-F grades for its campuses suggests claims the ratings are “transparent” or “easier to understand” are dubious.

    The reason for this is simple. A single composite score masks variation, and this can lead to results that would strike most parents as misleading.

    For example, an “A” grade for my child’s campus should signal to me as a parent that I should feel good about my child’s school. But Oklahoma researchers found that across all three tested subjects, “minority and poor students tested highest in “D” and “F” schools and lowest in “A” and “B” schools.”

    The researchers observed, “

    ut differently, according to [Oklahoma’s] own effectiveness grades, “A” and “B” schools are the least effective for poor and minority children; high scoring, affluent students in those schools produce averages that give the appearance of school effectiveness for all, essentially masking the especially low performance of poor and minority children.”

    Also, a single A-F grade for a campus does not provide a good means of comparison between campuses because performance across subject areas–say English, social studies and math–within a school is highly variable. Strong performance in one or two areas may mask poor performance in another area, or poor performance in one area may mask strong performance in others.

    In Oklahoma, math performance in some “D” and “F” schools was higher than math performance in some “B” and “C” schools, and none of the schools with the highest math average were “A” campuses.

    If evidence from several states suggests A-F ratings correlate to poverty not performance, and results produced by such a system may actually mislead parents and the public, why the push to adopt A-F grades for campuses?

    Experience in Florida and elsewhere shows that A-F ratings are the gateway drug to vouchers, cyber charters, school closures and campus takeovers by private operators. These interventions will fall most heavily not on politically connected affluent campuses, but on campuses with high percentages of poor and minority students. If the goal is transparency, let’s be transparent about the likely outcomes of this misguided policy.

    Anthony is CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, an Austin-based nonprofit organization.