State School District Ratings and Report Cards: Educational Redlining and Steering?

In his recent book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein shows how explicit government policies following WWII—Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, low-interest Veterans Administration home mortgages, government sanctioned insurance-writing policies, and others—have caused the racial segregation of America’s cities and suburbs. What we have called de facto segregation—segregation that just happened somehow—was really driven by explicit policies written or sanctioned by the government.

As I think today about states’ rankings and ratings of school districts and specific schools within districts, Rothstein’s book comes to mind. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (which replaced No Child Left Behind) requires labeling of schools. Congress has said that states must test students every year and then—based on the test scores and graduation rates and at least one other factor the federal government and states choose to use—rate schools. Congress says the purpose of this exercise is to help parents know about the quality of their children’s schools.

Some states like Ohio go further.  They aggregate all the indicators into an overall grade, what is known as a summative rating.  Some states classify schools into categories—Excellent-Good-Failing; others award  “A”-“F” grades on a school district report card. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act does not require summative ratings; it merely says states must create a way to tell parents about the quality of schools—based on test scores, graduation rates, and one or more other characteristics states choose to use.

Ohio has chosen to use summative letter grades for school districts—“A” through “F.” A couple of years ago, I began really to think through the implications of Ohio’s school district report cards when I was invited to a forum on education sponsored by our local fair housing agency, Heights Community Congress (HCC), which has been working since the 1970s to prevent block busting, disparate treatment and steering under the Fair Housing Law.  Fair housing advocates at HCC had become very concerned about the school ratings published online by real estate listing companies like Zillow and Trulia.  Aren’t these companies really engaging in steering? Aren’t they, in fact, pushing families to choose to look at real estate listings in school districts where the schools get an “A” and to avoid the communities where the schools get a “C” or an “F”?  Isn’t what is happening really a sort of educational redlining?

What struck me as I sat at HCC’s forum—even before I read Richard Rothstein’s book about government sponsored segregation—was this fact: The school ratings published by companies like Zillow and Trulia are not calculated by educational experts and statisticians hired by Zillow and Trulia. These companies are simply using the data gathered under the federal education law and used by our state government, by federal requirement, to rate the schools in each community. The companies are merely publishing the state’s ratings. Isn’t government complicit in educational redlining? Isn’t the state of Ohio itself complicit, by ranking schools, in steering real estate buyers to what test scores tell us are desirable school districts?

Here are some educational implications from experts that put the topic of educational redlining in some perspective. You have previously seen this information in this blog, but I’ll quote it again because it is so important.

First there was Sean Reardon’s 2011 report on growing residential segregation by income—which correlates tightly with segregation by race.  Reardon used a massive data set to document the consequences of widening economic inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality and residential segregation by income is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Second there is Daniel Koretz, in his urgently important 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, explaining how the test scores that are so central to states’ school ratings don’t really measure the quality of the schools but instead reflect the aggregate economic level of a school’s families and neighborhood:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Currently the Ohio Legislature and the State Board of Education are re-evaluating Ohio’s school district report cards.  I’m personally delighted to see politicians looking at problems in the report cards, and especially pleased that some critics of our current report cards are looking more deeply at the injustices in this rating system and not merely trying to manipulate the algorithms used in the calculations.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports on a bill  introduced in the Ohio House by Rep. Mike Duffey for the purpose of revising the state report cards. Duffey does worry about how the formulas work in the current report cards: “Gap Closing” and “K-3 Literacy” “are either counter-intuitive or just too hard for parents to understand.”  And Duffey believes student growth should “matter more,” but thinks “educators don’t trust how ‘value -added,’ Ohio’s main growth measure, is calculated.”

More important, however: Duffey is discerning about the systemic injustice in the current system: “(R)eport card ratings almost always make poor districts look bad, compared to affluent ones… A-F grades lead to a punitive approach to schools and should be dropped.”  Yes, Yes, Yes!

O’Donnell adds: “His bill would create a new report card with no A-F grades because they ‘produce a particularly visceral emotional response from parents,’ Duffey said, that can doom tax votes for schools, even when a school is doing well. ‘Sometimes an F is representative just of the demographics of the district….'” “‘We should move away from the winners and losers approach to the report card,’ Duffey told the education committee last week.”

Duffey would like Ohio’s school report cards “also (to) highlight special course offerings or extracurricular activities schools offer.”  He is making the radical proposal that in Ohio, the state could possibly give school districts high marks for a fine music program, a great high school newspaper, a robotics team, or an effort to replace punitive school discipline with conflict mediation and restorative justice. He is absolutely correct that parents would like to learn about such special offerings.

I have a personal bias in all this, of course.  I live in an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, a community where our family chose to educate our children. It is a mixed income community where black and white children go to school together.  I am so tired of reading about all of the white, affluent suburbs in the outer-ring whose schools, according to the state, “earn” an “A” rating, while high quality schools in the communities around mine get low grades from the state.

Representative Duffey is right that low grades on the state report card make it hard to pass the school levies. What is worse, however, is that the state has been condemning poorer and racially diverse communities with a system of educational redlining. Although this sort of thing has not yet been made explicitly illegal by any current law, fair housing advocates at Heights Community Congress would understand the state school report cards as a form of explicit steering.

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