DeVos approves Maryland school accountability plan

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Maryland will begin grading all its public schools on a five-star rating system this year under a sweeping rewrite of how schools are held accountable. The new system is part of a plan approved Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education.

Secretary Betsy DeVos’s final approval of Maryland’s plan — and those of 10 other states — came after a tug of war between the Maryland legislature on one side and Gov. Larry Hogan and the state school board on the other. Maryland’s plan was approved last fall by the state school board and hashed out over more than a year of community meetings. It will put less emphasis on test scores and more emphasis on how well schools raise student achievement over time.

The governor and state school board members believed the plan should have been stronger. They wanted more emphasis on academic achievement, and argued for mechanisms that would allow the state to intervene in helping students in failing schools. But the state legislature passed the Protect Our Schools Act last year, limiting the weight test scores could count in the formula for grading schools, and prohibiting the state from including other measures in the plan they submitted to DeVos.

The governor did not sign the submission to the federal education department, and did not welcome the approval of the plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, approved by Congress two years ago.

"The governor has made it clear that the ESSA plan forced on Maryland’s children is unacceptable, thanks to the legislature’s law mandating weak accountability standards that will trap kids in failing schools,” Hogan’s press secretary, Shareese N. Churchill said in a written statement. “This law flies in the face of President Obama’s intent in creating ESSA, which was to increase accountability and prioritize academic excellence. Maryland now has the deeply disappointing distinction of having the second least accountable school system in the nation. That may be good enough for some, but it’s not good enough for the governor."

The state teachers’ union expressed optimism about the potential effectiveness of the new accountability system?

“This is a landmark moment for Maryland schools. Last year’s passage of the Protect Our Schools Act positioned this plan to ensure that school accountability is no longer based solely on standardized testing, but also on important school quality factors like student attendance, access to well-rounded learning opportunities, and school climate and safety,” Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said in a statement.

Weller, who represents the largest teachers union in Maryland, said the new accountability system focuses “on closing equity and opportunity gaps while preventing the top-down privatization of our schools that Gov. Hogan wanted to force into the plan.”

Final approval by DeVos came after she criticized details of the plan and sent it back to state officials so they could revise it. The state board held a last minute conference call in December to iron out details in order to get approval this week. School board president Andrew Smarick said the changes were an attempt to walk a fine line between satisfying the federal ESSA law and the one passed by Maryland legislators last year that diminished the weight test scores could count toward rating a school.

The rating system, which will award one star to the lowest performing schools and five stars to the highest performing, is designed to give parents and others a simple guide to gauging the quality of a school.

For the first time, schools will be judged not just on test scores but on a whole list of factors including academic achievement, parent surveys, attendance rates and student enrollment in a range of subjects.

The federal education department noted that Maryland’s plan had several notable elements, including giving elementary schools credit or points in the rating system if they provide students with a well-rounded education as measured by what percentage of students pass social studies, fine arts, physical education and health classes.

This new emphasis is an attempt to undo the negative effects of the No Child Left Behind law which required schools to focus on math and reading. In some schools, particularly low performing ones, art, music and social studies were given little or dropped altogether.

Maryland’s department of education also will support low-performing schools by providing leadership coaches for principals.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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