Accountability Should Reward Schools That Serve All Children Well Even If Achievement Gaps Remain

The U.S. Department of Education has just updated the rules for states to be granted waivers from the most onerous requirements of the old, dated, and much criticized No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Anne Hyslop recently reported that in its new rules, the Department now requires states to ensure that every school is closing racial and economic achievement gaps.  The Department now asks states to demonstrate “that a school may not receive the highest rating in the state’s accountability system if there are significant achievement or graduation rate gaps in the school that are not closing.'”  On its face, this requirement may seem admirable.  After all, the goal of NCLB was to ensure that no set of children was being left behind.

I find myself deeply concerned about this rule, however, for the same reason Michael  Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas Fordham Institute, is concerned: New Waiver Guidance Will Sink Schools Where All Boats Are Rising.  This is one of the first times I remember that Mike Petrilli and I have agreed, and I am moved by his analysis.  He presents the example of Sawgrass Elementary School in Broward County, Florida.  You can think about his argument in the context, perhaps, of a school that you know that will be penalized by the new Department of Education rules.

Petrilli presents his example: “Consider the case of Sawgrass Elementary School….  Let’s examine its stats…. First look at the demographics which show it to be a rare model of racial and socio-economic diversity: 27 percent white, 28 percent black, 37 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, 54 percent disadvantaged, 29 percent English language learners.”  “Sawgrass has been making big gains in both math and reading, both overall and for its lowest-performing students.”  White students outperform the statewide white average by 13 points;  Black students the statewide black average by 29 points, Hispanic students the statewide Hispanic average by 21 points; Asian students the statewide Asian average by 4 points; disadvantaged students the statewide disadvantaged average by 21 points; and ELL students the statewide ELL average by 31 points.  At Sawgrass, according to Florida’s ‘satisfactory’ benchmark in math, 83 percent of white students, 72 percent of black students, 79 percent of Hispanic students, 89 percent of Asian students, 72 percent of disadvantaged students, and 73 percent of ELL students meet the standard.

Petrilli argues that this school should be given credit for its obvious quality.  He disagrees with the new waiver guidance that insists that schools close achievement gaps as measured by test scores.  “Why are we so afraid to celebrate a school that is clearly doing right by so many kids?… ‘Closing achievement gaps’ is a wonderful and worthy aspiration. (So was universal proficiency.) But baking that expectation, quite literally, into accountability systems is destined to deflate the grades of schools like Sawgrass and demoralize their teachers, students, and families.”

It might surprise you to learn that Matthew Di Carlo, of the Albert Shanker Institute, also fully agrees with Petrilli on this point.  In a post called Rethinking the Use of Simple Achievement Gap Measures in School Accountability Systems, Di Carlo presents four examples of how a school might close achievement gaps in any one year: “both groups make progress, but with more rapid growth in the scores of lower-income students; both groups decline in performance, but the scores of higher-income students decline more rapidly; the scores of lower-income students increase, while those of higher-income students remain stable; the scores of lower-income students remain stable while those of higher-income students decline.”  He explains: “All four of these scenarios are quite common, particularly at the school level, but also within states…. But only one of them—the first one—could be considered as genuine success.  Why would we reward or punish schools based on a criterion that is likely to conceal undesirable outcomes?… In short, achievement gaps are a good example of a measure that is very important, but not well-suited for use in formal or informal accountability systems.”

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