The state’s so-called dashboard for measuring a school’s performance and progress isn’t nearly as good as it should be, as we’ve said many times. Though much improved from its early iterations, these annual report cards are still too complicated and user-unfriendly. In some cases, they reward schools for merely conducting surveys they’re already required to conduct, rather than for achieving results. It’s fine to give parents and the public plenty of information, but what they really need is a clear, accurate and relatively easy way to tell how a school and its students are doing and to compare it with others.
Enter the Los Angeles Unified School District with a plan to make up for this deficiency by providing parents with a simpler report on both district-run and charter schools. The problem is that an early version of this plan swings too far in the opposite direction, going way past “simpler” all the way to damagingly simplistic.
According to documents obtained by Times reporters, the proposed measurement system, which hasn’t come before the board yet, would include a rating for each school on a scale of 1 to 5, based mostly on test scores. In the case of elementary and middle schools, the scores themselves and students’ improvement on them would make up 80% of the ranking. In high schools, it would be 65%, and since the state’s annual standardized test is given in only one grade in high school, it would show nothing about whether any particular cohort of students is improving on the tests as they move from 9th to 12th grade.
Yes, a couple of other factors would be counted as well — a school’s suspension and absenteeism rates would be figured in, and for high schools, graduation rates and college readiness. But tests are the main thing.
That’s a mistake. The days of the federal No Child Left Behind law and its over-reliance on test scores are over, and not missed by many people. We’ve seen what happens when test scores are overemphasized: Schools teach to the standardized tests, which means they toss aside history, science, the arts, physical education and other important activities.
Test scores have a rightful place in judging what students are learning. They provide at least some measurement of whether students are mastering reading, writing and math. Bottom basement scores, year after year, are a sign that something is wrong. Parents do need information about them.
But what’s wrong might not be the quality of the teaching or the running of the school. The reality is that students in some neighborhoods face considerably more challenges of poverty, family disruption and the like, and those issues often affect their academic performance and test results.
Charter schools and magnet schools draw their enrollment from parents who go out of their way to find out about different schools and who have the time and ability to sign up their children for possible acceptance. Even if those students are poor and enter school not yet knowing English, they tend to have a leg up on students whose parents are less involved, perhaps because they’re ill or working too many jobs. Neighborhood schools shouldn’t be made to look comparatively bad over factors they can’t control.
A single number is a misleading way to measure the complexities of all the important things that occur on a school campus. A better idea would be to pick a few categories that parents care about the most and deliver a short but worthwhile report on those. Yes, test scores should be included, but as one element, not as a wildly over-weighted metric. The district could step in where the state failed on the issue of “parent engagement.” In the California dashboard, schools get a good rating in that category simply by having parents fill out a form on the subject. The parents might think the school is uninterested in them and provides a terrible environment, but as long as they fill out the form, it doesn’t matter to the state how they feel. How about a score that tells how parents really feel about their child’s school?
Similarly, the state’s rating for how many teachers at a school are qualified to teach their subject depends only on the schools providing a report. They still get a high score even if they have a lot of unqualified teachers. L.A. Unified could offer something a lot more informative than that.
The school board should soundly reject any attempt to impose a facile rating of its schools and focus instead of giving the public information that counts.