The rollout of states’ redesigned school accountability systems in recent weeks has reignited tensions between policymakers, practitioners, and parents over how best to define and incentivize school success.
Virtually every state, after the passing of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, redesigned their school accountability systems, an arduous, combative, and yearslong process that led to the resignation of several state education chiefs.
Those new systems are now being presented to the public for the first time on sleek new websites that allow visitors to compare among schools and dive into test scores and several new data points, including chronic absenteeism, teacher quality, and student preparation for colleges and careers.
But how state departments then used those data points to rank schools has riled many district superintendents in recent weeks who, in editorials and school board meetings, have accused state officials of being overly simplistic and still too reliant on test scores to determine the winners and losers.
“It doesn’t really tell the whole story of the effectiveness of any school or any district,” said Felecia Gomez-Walker, the superintendent of St. Charles Parish school district in Louisiana, whose letter grade dropped from an A to a B under the state’s new system. Gomez-Walker said she appreciates Louisiana’s redesigned report card for its detailed breakdown of academic outputs but is frustrated with the state’s use of letter grades.
States’ accountability systems determine where tens of millions of federal and state school improvement dollars flow, and for a variety of reasons in many states, districts and schools haven’t been ranked in several years. So there has inevitably been a lot of angst among district leaders and advocacy groups over the accuracy and reliability of new report cards.
Several states, including Missouri and South Carolina, had technical, logistical, and design glitches that delayed the release of schools’ scores.
Tennessee, for example, redesigned for the second time its entire accountability system over the summer after some schools’ test scores were reported inaccurately and the legislature told its department not to issue letter grades to schools this year.
Defining School Success
In many states, there is still a sharp divide between what policymakers, practitioners, and parents think should define school success and what state departments have the capacity to measure accurately. Those battles will likely spill into next year’s legislative session.
Officials in Indiana, Wyoming, and New Mexico have already indicated that they will make significant changes to their ESSA plans in the coming months.
States’ accountability systems offer an opportunity for federal and state officials to communicate to those on the front lines where they should prioritize their work, said Chris Domaleski, the associate director for the Center for Assessment who helps states design accountability systems.
“It’s important for accountability systems to provide accurate information about how schools are achieving, given that communities make substantial investments in public schools,” Domaleski said.
Rhode Island’s education commissioner, Ken Wagner, appearing on a television show, jokingly threw a chair across the room last week to exhibit how frustrated he was that the state’s test scores lagged behind Massachusetts.
“It’s not true that our kids can’t do it. They can do it!” he said.
In other states, the timing of the state’s report card turned into a political message on its own.
Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, was accused by Republican opponent Knute Buehler of delaying the release of the state’s new report card until after the election to avoid political backlash over perceived stagnant results.
“It shouldn’t take the threat of the governor losing her election for her to do the right thing,” Buehler said on Twitter. “Oregonians, and especially our students and parents, deserve better than this. Help is on the way in 13 days.”
Brown ultimately won the election.
California officials were lambasted by advocates and parents for their redesigned dashboard. The Los Angeles Times editorial board called it a “color in the blank” chart.
The state invested another $300,000 this year in order to redesign the report card yet again, a preview of which was provided for reporters last week.
ESSA requires states to collect and report to the public plenty more data about the goings on in their schools. But with layoffs in recent years of so many of the technicians in state departments and districts who are responsible for processing data, there were bound to be technical glitches.
In South Carolina, the state department collected more than 11 million data points for its new accountability system, a process that required the state to purchase a new data-collection system for $1 million.
But the state outsourced to AdvancED for $1.3 million the task of measuring how engaged students were at their schools, a process that requires students to fill out electronic surveys and would amount to more than 10 percent of districts’ scores.
AdvancED didn’t at first properly match the scores with the students’ responses, delaying for several weeks the rollout of the entire state’s accountability system. (AdvancED said in a statement to local media it was remedying the problem.)
“We haven’t issued a rating in quite some time,” said Ryan Brown, a spokesman for South Carolina’s department of education. “We want to show to the public what the expectations are at the state and federal level so it’s important that people buy into it. We have some who are accepting it and some who are still skeptical.”
With all the new indicators states are factoring into districts’ scores, many state officials scrambled in recent weeks to discourage reporters and the public from comparing their scores to prior rankings.
Outrage in Texas
Texas for the first time gave its schools a letter grade, a system that outraged many district superintendents, many of whom told parents in local newspapers to dismiss the rankings outright.
“The grades were what the news stories were all about,” said Dax González, a spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards. “Reporters were going to seize on the letter grade and determine what it meant when we really still don’t know what it means. There could be just one indicator that’s in there that knocked a district down to a C.”
In other states, including Utah, Florida, and Indiana, state officials weren’t able to figure out in time how to merge their state accountability system with federal requirements under ESSA and they ended up this year releasing two sets of assessments of schools.
Tom Edington, the superintendent of Wawasee Schools in Syracuse, Ind., said he’s gotten so irritated with the state’s waffling over what its accountability system should look like that he and the board created their own accountability system, complete with its own standardized test indicators, and letter grade. That means the district’s schools will this year be given federal, state, and local grades.
“We know ours is an unchanging standard and has remained stable enough for us to be able to adequately and fairly measure our students,” he said. “We started six years ago doing this and we haven’t looked back.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as Rollout of ESSA Report Cards Frustrates School Leaders