Louisville School Ratings at Odds With Kentucky Goals

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Kentucky's largest and most urban district is at odds again with backers of the state's high-profile school accountability system, who worry that expectations are being lowered for needy students.

Kentucky's largest and most urban district is at odds again with backers of the state's high-profile school accountability system, who worry that expectations are being lowered for needy students.

The dispute began when the 95,000-student Jefferson County district, which includes Louisville, released two sets of ratings for its 131 schools.

One came from the state and showed that Jefferson County had 16 of the 49 schools across Kentucky that scored low enough to be targeted for a "scholastic audit."

The other ratings were produced by the district to reflect where it believed schools should score, based on their past marks and on various socioeconomic characteristics of their students.

The problem, say some observers, is that the district- produced score appears to lower the expectations for schools with high rates of poverty, student mobility, special education students, and single-parent households—the four variables the district chose to factor into its scores.

"A lot of people think the implicit message is that the schools with these children can't do as well," said Hunt Helm, the spokesman for the state education department. "Whether or not that's the message they want to send, it's the message that some are receiving."

District officials, stung by a barrage of questions about their ratings, said that their intent was to devise a research tool that helps them identify schools that are doing well and also have many of the most academically challenging students.

"This is not a substitute for the state accountability system," said Robert Rodosky, the district's executive director of accountability. "Basically, we are trying to see who is really doing a good job given these input variables."

Butting Heads

Jefferson County has butted heads with state officials in the past over how its schools are rated under the statewide accountability system, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, known as CATS, which was put in place two years ago as a replacement for the controversial former system.

Officials of the Jefferson County district had lobbied state lawmakers to include socioeconomic factors such as poverty and mobility in school-level rankings. "That kind of notion was overwhelmingly thrown out," Mr. Helm said.

Instead, legislators required all schools to reach 100 on a state scale of 140 by 2014.

Jefferson County officials still question the wisdom of setting the same finishing line for all students, regardless of how poor they are, how often they change schools, or what language they speak at home.

"We ought to be able to set goals based on prediction models of past performances," Mr. Rodosky argued. "The mantra is that everyone will get the goal at the same moment. I'm not sure that can happen, given the past performance of schools in this state."

He rejects, however, the view that the district's index lets schools with needy students off the hook.

He explained that the district chose factors that are widely seen to influence student academic outcomes and then applied arbitrary weights to each factor to calculate its accountability scores. The highest weights were for students who qualify for free or reduced- price school meals—a common indicator of poverty—and live in single-parent households.

Most state scores were within a few points of the county's "predicted academic index," though 26 fell above and 26 were below the county marks. Critics say the two scores send conflicting messages and could discourage high expectations for students.

Robert F. Sexton

"There's the impression that the district is saying, 'We don't have to reach the same standards as the rest of the state, because we have special needs,' " said Robert F. Sexton, the director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' advocacy group.

"Using single-parent families as an indicator bothers me," said Susan Weston, the director of the Kentucky Association of School Councils, an umbrella organization of the local bodies that help govern schools. "It's seen as a weak link compared to parent education and socioeconomic level."

A sampling of other reactions underscores the confusion surrounding the index.

Theresa Jensen, the principal of Engelhard Elementary School, doesn't even remember looking at her county score and has not shared it with her staff.

"There's one score we're held accountable for," she said, referring to the state's rating. "I know where we are, and I know where we have to go."

Since the county index was published, though, at least four principals have called to ask Ms. Jensen how she had succeeded so well at Engelhard, which won a cash award from the state for its improvements. Some 80 percent of Engelhard Elementary's 480 students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals.

Elsewhere, parent John Grossman said that during a meeting at King Elementary School, he did not get the impression that the score was replacing the state mark. But he worries that sorting data by socioeconomic factors could perpetuate stereotypes.

"I hear a lot of teachers say things like, 'This kid or that kid is not doing well, but that's to be expected because he's poor and comes from a bad family situation,' " he said. "I don't think it has anything to do with what the superintendent told the school. It's already in the teachers."

Vol. 20, Issue 11, Page 5

Published in Print: November 15, 2000, as Louisville School Ratings at Odds With Kentucky Goals
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