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Grades Based on Test Scores Can't Measure a School's Success

Sacramento's  Mayor Kevin Johnson has said that the city should have a greater role in Sacramento's schools.  State law, as well as the city's Council Manager form of government, prevents him from wresting control of the schools from the elected school board so he has proposed another means to put his stamp on the city's schools.   In keeping with the federal emphasis on test scores and accountability,  the Mayor  proposed  a school grading system in his "Education White Paper" made public in 2009 and announced its development  in his 2012 "State of the City" speech.  The mayor's grading system would give schools a single letter grade based on test scores. Is this a good idea? Do test scores alone really tell parents if a school is successful?
 
Viewing  parents as consumers, the mayor's organization, Stand Up Sacramento is attempting to create a "consumer report" for schools based on a Colorado model, which is independent of the state system. That model purports to turn the Colorado  state school ranking system into a simple letter grade based on growth in performance on standardized tests. A "value added" measurement of  academic growth in test scores is given greater weight than academic achievement alone. It also factors in the performance of traditionally disadvantaged students--English language learners, special education students and children in poverty. ColoradoSchoolGrades.com grades on the curve.  Schools that might all be graded as "performing" by the state, could receive anything from a C to an A on the website. Only 10% of schools will receive an A. The website provides a "snapshot" of a school's demographics, but no weight is given at all to school environment.
 
In this grading system and others around the country,  the "value added" measurement plays a great part of the school grade. The "value added" measurement purports to show how much a child has learned over the course of the year by comparing his scores to a statewide or national average of gains made on standardized tests. Individual children's  scores are followed year after year. By measuring their progress this way, proponents maintain that a school can be judged on whether it is helping kids catch up to their peers. Detractors point out that a school grading system puts a premium on schools that utilize a test-score driven curriculum.  Schools with curriculum that embrace analytical/critical thinking and project based learning  will very likely earn a lower school-wide grade.
 
Grading systems that reward test growth over academic achievement generally can actually grant low grades to persistently high achieving schools that don’t have a lot of room to improve when it comes to test growth. This is now being seen in New York City.   The New York City grading system also has the problem of giving otherwise successful schools a failing grade if they fail to meet testing targets for the year.  Likewise, schools that are otherwise rated poorly can receive an A if they make a gain on the state tests. The New York City grades are often at odds with state evaluations of schools creating confusion for parents.  Such a grading system can't take into account any particular challenges that students may incur in a particular year outside the classroom-such as loss of a family member, family financial problems or illnesses or other stressors on a child that may affect performance on standardized tests. Moreover, many aspects of teaching quality and school quality can't be measured on a standardized test.
 
Parents and students  might have other criteria for considering a particular school successful or desirable.  When choosing a school, involved parents might look at the availability of parent participation programs such as PTA and PTSAs;  School Site Councils;  English Learner Advisory Committees; parent outreach workers; or parent booster clubs.  Parents of special needs children might deem a school successful  if it has classroom inclusion and program offerings to students with learning, physical and emotional disabilities.  Providing a nurse, social workers, college interns, college and career centers and counseling to help meet community needs are ways to help students succeed in school that can't be measured on a test.
 
Students might look at the availability of extra-curricular and afterschool programs such as field trips, athletics, music and drama and clubs.   Student leadership opportunities at the school offer additional ways to be involved in the school community and help increase student participation in the functioning of the school. No grading system really measure how important these elements are to a child's success in school. The Colorado system ignores them completely.  Yet many students in high school mention activities such as sports, drama and band as the main reason they enjoy school. If programs like these help keep kids in school, shouldn't they be given some important weight in a school's grade?
 
No report card can provide a true measure of a school's success if it doesn't take into account the differences between student populations.  Schools with more affluent students do better than schools with the majority of students in poverty. Schools without large numbers of English Language Learners and Special education students also perform better. Take a look at the demographics of the two schools the mayor helped start. Neither PS7 or Sacramento  Charter High School serve English Language Learners or Special Education students in enough numbers to have their test scores count against the school for Adequate Yearly Progress.  Demographic data of nearby neighborhood elementary schools as compiled by the State Department of Education show very different student demographics. Oak Park’s Oak Ridge Elementary school had an English Language Learner population of 230 kids, or 45% of its student body.  Fruitridge Elementary had 138 ELL students the same year, Ethel Philips 207, Bret Harte 87 and Father Keith B. Kenny 57.  This is a total of 719 ELL students in key elementary schools that serve Oak Park, nearly 35% of the student population attending these schools.  
 
A school grading system that ignores any facets of a school except for test scores fails to take into account a the unique challenges public schools face in serving their community. A school grading system based solely on test scores can't give parents a real view of the school's success in offering students a supportive learning environment, nor can it measure a school's value to its community. Not everything a child learns can be measured on a test. The mayor's proposed system could be used for a narrow purpose as a guide for parents.   But this proposed report card could also be used as a tool for condemning the schools with the most challenging students and undermining our city's public schools.

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