Students receive grades on their report cards, but should schools also be graded on their performance?
In this era of at-a-glance five-star ratings and numeric rankings, the Los Angeles school board is wrestling with how to fairly assess campuses and present data in an easy-to-understand way.
On Tuesday, a school board majority is expected to reject its first-ever plan to rate schools The next steps are not entirely laid out. But an emerging strategy would use already reported state data and make it more accessible and easier to understand. The state does not rank schools.
Veteran educator Jackie Goldberg, who joined the board via a special election in May, fueled the anti-grading momentum after the plan to rate schools on a scale of 1 to 5 became more widely known in August. The plan was never supported by the unions representing teachers or administrators.
Goldberg contends that simple “summative” ratings are not fair to schools that serve students from low-income families because academic achievement is largely linked to their socioeconomic level.
“There’s nothing wrong with giving people data,” Goldberg said. “But I don’t want to do it a way that displays the ‘good schools’ and displays the ‘bad schools’ and then allows people to say: ‘Let’s punish the bad schools.’ I don’t believe in public humiliation.”
That’s not how board member Nick Melvoin sees it.
“We need a vocabulary to talk about schools that are high- and low-performing,” said Melvoin, who would like to see a summary rating of schools.
Melvoin said that an easy-to-understand, single rating for schools based on a system designed by the district, would be more fair and valid than outside rating websites.
Under the proposed L.A. Unified grading system, elementary and middle schools, for example, would have had 45% of their ratings based on test improvement and 35% on the actual scores. The final 20% would have been based on how well each school is keeping suspension rates low and preventing chronic absenteeism.
Even though such ranking systems have gained political favor, they remain controversial, with experts divided.
Although California no longer applies a single score to a school, most states have moved in the other direction — with 45 using or planning to use some form of rankings, according to a 2018 report from the Education Commission of the States.
Among these, 17 opted for an A-to-F or 1-to-5-star rating system; 11 chose descriptions such as Needs Improvement, Average, Good, Great or Excellent; 12 are relying on a number in a range, such as 1 to 100.
Six states opted to define schools by how much support they need: Comprehensive Support and Improvement, Targeted Support and Improvement or None. L.A. Unified has used something similar for internal purposes, but not as a tool for parents to compare schools.
Instead of a grading or ranking system, California offers a colorful “dashboard” on how schools are doing in categories including test scores, absenteeism and suspensions. It also shows how a school’s different demographic groups perform within these categories. Some complain about the website because it is not easy to compare schools and can be difficult to navigate.
Another topic generating interest among board members is “growth scores,” which measure students’ year-over-year learning. This rating, based on standardized test scores, could be one of several yardsticks to evaluate or compare schools.
Growth scores offer another way of evaluating schools that serve black and Latino students in low-income, high-crime, socially distressed neighborhoods. Such schools almost always have achievement levels below schools that enroll students from more affluent families. A growth measure, however, could give these struggling schools the credit they deserve for making progress, while also serving as a guide to improve ongoing instruction.
California is one of two states that is not measuring student learning growth as part of their accountability systems for elementary and middle schools, according to Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization.
A few California school systems are posting the information online, including Oakland Unified and Long Beach Unified. Many more districts, including L.A. Unified, are calculating and collecting growth data but do not make it accessible online.
Goldberg said she has no problem with calculating a school’s growth score, but is concerned how that number could be misused. She worries that supporters of independently operated charter schools would present data in a way to bash traditional schools and pave the way for more new charters and the handing over of district-operated campuses to privately run charter groups.
Goldberg sees the unimpeded growth of charters as detrimental, because it pulls students and resources from traditional public education, which she views as essential to the mission of serving all students equitably.
Charter backers view it differently. They view charter schools as high-quality alternatives that are providing needed competition, forcing all schools to be more efficient and effective. L.A. has more charters than any other school system; they enroll about one in five district students.
Melvoin insists that data should transcend the debate over charters.
“I think that there’s this climate of fear around the charter piece that is just not born in reality,” he said. “Data can always be used for good or evil. We should make more better schools, not hide the information from parents.”
Some advocates are pushing the district to post its growth data.
“There are schools with 94% poverty with high growth and schools with 94% poverty with low growth rates,” said Seth Litt, who heads the advocacy group Parent Revolution. “This is scandalous.” District officials can see this data, he said, “but families can’t see the information about their schools.”
Goldberg suggests she’s willing to compromise, especially because she wants schools making progress to be able to show it.
“For some schools that are not doing well right now, growth, for them, is the most exciting piece of data they have,” she said.
However, she doesn’t want the district to set up a tool that allows side-by-side comparisons of schools.
“If people want to look up their school and then look up another school, God bless them,” Goldberg said. “They can make their own comparison.”