Letter Grades, Assigned by States to School Districts, Tell Us Little about Real Opportunity

Ohio’s release last Friday of school district report cards that rate schools and school districts and assign letter grades for a range of calculations that remain incomprehensible to the general public has set me to thinking about opportunity.  The grades, after all, purport to rank and rate our state’s school districts according to their success or failure in serving all children. School district grades and ratings, however, are almost entirely abstract.  Experience is categorized, assigned numbers that become factors in algorithms, and described as a letter grade for each of a number of categories.

Consider instead what Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA education professor, says about opportunity: “(I)’m interested… in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind.  The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it.”  (Why School? p. 34) “(T)he creation of opportunity involves a good deal of thoughtful work on the part of the provider, and as well, demands significant effort on the part of the recipient… In this regard, I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation.  But what is the experience of opportunity?  Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope. But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.  And all this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.” (Why School? pp. 13-14)

By contrast, the Plain Dealer covers last Friday’s release of school district grades and rankings in the most abstract way—totally removed from any attention to the “experience” of attending school.  The newspaper covers the ratings almost as a sports competition—listing the top 20 school districts in Northeast Ohio and the top 20 school districts in the state.  All of them across the state are exurban, high income, and homogeneously white. They include the wealthiest outer ring suburbs of Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Lorain, Akron, and Youngstown.

Decades’ of research confirm that test scores primarily reflect the aggregate family wealth of a school district’s student population. When the preliminary scores from last spring’s Ohio tests were released in December (Final scores ratings just released last week are from last spring’s testing.), here is how, the Plain Dealer described research from Howard Fleeter, a Columbus school data analyst who has continued to examine the direct correlation of family wealth in Ohio’s communities with the letter  grades the state is assigning to its school districts:  “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase….  Ohio may have changed academic standards and its state tests last school year, but the recurring relationship between test scores and poverty remains the same…. Fleeter has reported the relationship between test scores and family income on an annual basis the last several years…. He repeated that analysis this week using preliminary test scores from the spring on Ohio’s new math, English, science and social studies tests…. As he does each year, Fleeter compared the percentage of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better on state tests in each school district to the percentage of students considered ‘Economically Disadvantaged’….”

Of course there are social and demographic implications when the state assigns letter grades to school districts and the newspaper covers all this as a competition and identifies “top” districts. Describing the danger of using school district test score grades as a guide to evaluating school districts, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein told the Cleveland City Club last February: “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools. And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools. Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F,’ where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that. And so if you label schools with ‘A’-‘F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A’-‘F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

There are a number of categories in which Ohio’s school districts recently received grades—including one that is little discussed and seems more promising—“Value Added.”  But one indicator, based primarily on cut scores on standardized tests, is more important.  According to the website of the Ohio Department of Education, “The Indicators Met measure shows how many students have a minimum, or proficient, level of knowledge. These indicators are not new to Ohio students or teachers. They are based on a series of up to 35 state tests that measure the percent of students proficient or higher in a grade and subject…. The number of indicators “met” out of the total indicators determines the A-F grade on the report card.”

This year the “Indicators Met” category has more than the usual “F” grades because Ohio used a new PARCC test, which the legislature has now decided to abandon and find a new testing company.  Students’ scores dropped statewide.   Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter, notes that, “Six times fewer Ohio school districts received the top grade in a key measure on the new state report cards than last year…”  In a press release, State Representative Teresa Fedor warns, “Every grade on these report cards is tainted by unverified, arbitrary, poorly designed and implemented tests that have been thrown out by the Ohio legislature.  The flaws are so pervasive that the grades on the Ohio School Report Cards should not be counted for anything.  The state calls it a safe harbor (The state says it will not penalize school districts this year.), which should lead one to question: why are there report cards at all?”   And A.J. Wagner, a member of the state school board, warns: “The tests, and therefore the grades, violate standards of fairness… I urge students, parents, and communities to ignore them.”

Coincidentally, on Saturday, the Plain Dealer published an article that speaks not to the abstract and questionable school district grades but instead to an issue Mike Rose would likely agree is more closely connected to how students across Ohio experience opportunity: “Ohio high school students pay as much as $1,200 to participate in a school-sponsored sport, which critics say prevents students from lower-and middle-class families from signing up. School districts say they need to charge fees to offset growing costs outpacing state funding.”  The legislature is considering prohibiting the fees.

The school district in which I reside serves a high percentage of very poor students and a high percentage of students in the Cuyahoga County foster care system.  It posts a low state grade on “Indicators Met,” and a very high grade in the lesser described state report card category of “Value Added.” And, contrary to the trend by which Ohio school districts are increasing activity participation fees, our school district has paid careful attention to the distribution of opportunity by avoiding what the Plain Dealer on Saturday called “pay-to-play” fees that would prevent our poorest students from playing sports or participating in music programming.

Our family chose to educate our children in a very diverse, mixed-income school district where they would benefit from a heterogeneous group of peers, but in which the school district worked to ensure opportunity for all.  It was this experience we sought for our children who are now adults. I know many families whose children are currently enrolled who are pleased with our school district, whatever the state’s school district grades may say. Of course, in a very unequal society, it is important that all districts work persistently to make the experience of schooling more equitable.  But the state’s rating system doesn’t help in any way I can see.

Opportunity, according to Mike Rose, is “hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal.”  The school district grades and rankings tell us nothing about how school districts are expanding concrete pathways for children to experience opportunity.  Pay-to-play fees are just one way that some school districts are blocking those pathways.

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