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School ratings need broader criteria

Houston Chronicle
May 4, 2015
By Angela Sugarek
Every year, the nonprofit organization Children at Risk releases its grades for schools across Texas. This is not an event that generally means much to me, despite my position as a principal in the Houston Independent School District. But this year has been different. This year matters to me because Children at Risk rated my school as an “F.”
Those who see the “F” next to the name of my school will not know that 98 percent of parents at my school who completed the HISD “Your Voice” survey in spring of 2014 indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their child’s education. The “F” did not take into account that my school provides a broad range of enrichment opportunities to every child that includes art and Mandarin Chinese. Nor did this “F” take into account the 20-point gain that we have seen so far this year on the 2015 STAAR results. Instead, Children at Risk used a somewhat complicated regression analysis methodology to rank and grade schools using 2014 State Assessment of Academic (STAAR) scores and some demographic data, limited only to students in grades three through five.
Let me be clear. I support standardized testing. Without standardized testing, it is too easy for schools to move students along without properly preparing them for success, especially students from traditionally disenfranchised groups. While some may argue that this sort of thing does not happen anymore, I will tell you that one of my first meetings as a principal was with a parent who wanted to know how her daughter could have failed the STAAR in every subject when she had all A’s on her report card. Most teachers who inflate students’ grades do so because they want to see the best in their students, and a few just want to make sure that they do not have to teach “that” kid again next year. Either way, standardized tests serve as a check to ensure that our kids are really mastering the standards needed to be successful in the next grade level.
I also believe in grading schools. As a future parent and current school leader, I believe that it is important for all stakeholders to know how schools are performing. There are many ways in which Children at Risk has gotten it right. The group’s use of letter grades makes a great deal of sense and I remain hopeful that Texas will continue the move from the current pass/fail system to one that rates schools using an A-F grade.
My problem arises when organizations like Children at Risk use standardized test results as the sole data point to grade schools. In reviewing the rankings of the schools in HISD, a clear pattern emerges at both ends of the list. The schools at the top serve more affluent students who are more likely to be identified as Gifted and Talented (GT), while the schools at the bottom are more likely to serve a high percentage of poor students who are not identified as GT. While there is likely nuance in the middle of the list, there are definitely many schools throughout the list who are doing amazing things to prepare students for success. If Children at Risk really wants to provide a tool for parents and students, in addition to providing “information to campuses and districts on how they perform relative to their peers, comparing them against successful models of high-performing public schools,” then I urge the organization to include additional data points in its analysis. Specifically, schools should be graded using these following four elements:
1. Academic Growth: Assess individual student growth from one year to the next in reading and math, as measured by STAAR scores. Because students begin testing in third grade, this index would use data from grades four and up.
2. Early Literacy: Measure student reading proficiency using STAAR scores for students in the third grade who have been at the same campus since kindergarten. Statistical methodologies should be used to control for student populations who are likely to skew the data such as students identified as Gifted and Talented.
3. Enrichment Opportunities: Solicit information from schools regarding the enchrichment, ancillary and elective classes available to students. Also, inquiries should be made about character education and participation in University Interscholastic League-activities. Parents deserve to know if schools are doing well in academic growth and early literacy at the expense of music, art and other enrichment experiences.
4. Parent Input: Launch a survey of parents across the state to hear what they have to say about their child’s school. Use technology and statistical sampling to make this feasible on such a large scale.
In many ways, public education is the tie that binds us. Even if you or your children attended a private school, your taxes are funding public schools and your home value is tied to the success of your neighborhood schools. When school rankings are released, we cannot help but check to see how the schools around us are faring. Often, our suspicions are confirmed, but sometimes we are shocked to find out that a local school is not all we thought it was. No matter the situation, all schools deserve to be graded fairly using multiple measures that provide stakeholders with a robust assessment of the school’s performance.
Sugarek is principal of Durham Elementary School.
Every year, the nonprofit organization Children at Risk releases its grades for schools across Texas. This is not an event that generally means much to me, despite my position as a principal in the Houston Independent School District.