Joanna Bache Tobin
Maryland School Report Cards - Going Beyond the Ratings
We recently received good news about Anne Arundel County public schools when the Maryland Report Card for 2018-2019 was issued. Ninety-five percent of AACPS schools scored three stars or higher – the most stars received by any of the large Maryland school systems. That speaks to the hard work of teachers, administrators, and most importantly, students. We have many reasons to be proud of them and to celebrate this accomplishment.
But like all rankings and ratings systems, these stars represent a tidal wave of data made up of many pieces of information that go toward earning each star. We need a better way to understand and evaluate that information to know what it really means when one school gets 5 stars and another gets 2 stars. Is it appropriate or fair to measure schools with vastly different demographics against one another? If so, then we really are not comparing apples to apples. Here's an example of what I mean.
In the Anne Arundel County 2018-2019 Report Card, the table near the bottom of this page lists proficiency ratings broken out by demographics for the entire county and shows gaps, also known as standard deviations. Compare proficiency numbers in Math by demographic groups in elementary, middle, and high school tests:
Based on these percentages, it is clear that a particular population in a school will have a profound effect on the final ratings to determine stars. And the effect won't be limited to just academic achievement. We know, for example, that low proficiency tends to go hand in hand with high levels of truancy, which is also measured in these report cards. We simply cannot get a real understanding of what is going on in a particular school without knowing who the students are at that school. Comparing schools with disparate populations also leads to other problems. For example, Annapolis High School received three stars. But how do we know how well it is really doing unless we compare it to a school with similar demographics? I contend that we don't because the report cards provide no way of knowing the school demographics.
This kind of comparison can be demoralizing for schools. Administrators, teachers and students at more diverse schools have greater challenges, and this can lead to feelings of frustration that they may never rank at the top because of who they are. This feeling of hopelessness takes a toll on the whole school community and reinforces the cycle. Make no mistake, parents who have the resources will use the star guidance to make decisions about where they locate their homes and families – moving to the areas with schools that have earned the most stars and away from areas with schools that earn fewer stars. This situation reinforces the demographic differences between schools and makes it even harder for the lower rated schools' communities to overcome their challenges. By diving down into the data and uncovering what it is really telling us, we can begin to understand ”cause and effect” and start to have meaningful conversations about how to address the inequities of the situation.
The state has indicated that in the future we will be getting better information that allows us to compare schools with similar populations. We need to get that as soon as possible if we are really going to be able to determine where success lies.