Every public school in Maryland will be judged on a five-star rating system beginning next school year, under a plan the state school board approved Tuesday.
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 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.
"We have a new way of providing information to the public on school and district performance," Andrew Smarick, the president of the state board, said after the vote. He said he hopes the new rating provides more clarity to parents.
Maryland will also identify the bottom five percent of all schools in the state based only on academic indicators, including the percentage of students passing tests and whether student achievement improved over a school year. The state will give those schools more attention and could require they make changes.
The grading system is part of a much larger plan the state board will send this week to the governor and the legislature for review. The lawmakers' input is considered advisory, but the board can choose to make changes to the plan before it must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in September.
Every state is required under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, to submit a school accountability plan that spells out the guidelines for how schools will be judged through 2030.
"This will set the direction and priorities of local school systems for the next 10 to 15 years and it is important," said Cheryl Bost, the vice president of the Maryland State Education Association, which represents the majority of teachers in the state.
"Our kids are more than just standardized test scores and that's why educators and parents value all of what our students learn in school, not just what is measured on one assessment."
Bost said she doesn't believe the ESSA plan goes far enough to ensure that schools that need the most support will get it.
For more than a decade schools have been judged largely on how their students scored on reading and math, an emphasis which caused some principals to focus solely on those subjects in the early grades at the expense of social studies, science and the arts.
Bost said teachers like the new emphasis on a broad curriculum.
"I think ESSA is an amazing opportunity to address the whole child," said Athanasia Kyriakakosso, a Baltimore art teacher and the Maryland Teacher of the Year. She was on a committee that advised the state board as it wrote the plan.
Under ESSA elementary and middle schools will get points based on whether students are enrolled in fine arts, social studies, physical education and health classes. Middle schools also will be judged on how their students score on social studies and science tests the state is introducing over the next several years.
High schools will be judged on the percentage of students that complete advanced classes, master various career skills, meet University of Maryland entry requirements, or get a high enough SAT score.
The majority of the school rating system — 65 percent — will be based on academic measures, including students' annual academic growth and the percentage of students that pass the state English and math exams. Currently, less than half the state's students pass those tests.
Another 35 percent of the school grade will come from nonacademic measurements, including whether students are enrolled in a broad curriculum, surveys of parents and teachers and the percentage of chronic absentees.
Basing just 65 percent of the weight on academics may be deemed too low by the U.S. Department of Education. The department has already told Delaware that its 80 percent weight for academics is too low.
"I wonder if they won't raise a red flag for Maryland," said school board member David Steiner .
State school board members expressed frustration that they could not count test scores and other academic measures more heavily in the scoring, but the General Assembly passed a law this year that limits the role of testing to 65 percent.
ESSA replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, a law that was in effect for more than a decade and was widely criticized for being too punitive because schools were judged almost solely on test scores. ESSA was designed to give more authority back to the states for how schools are held accountable .
Still, some board members fear schools rated as one star will be stigmatized.
Board member Stephanie Iszard said she doesn't believe that schools in disadvantaged communities receive enough resources.
"In some communities they are only going to get one star. I think that is a disservice to children. I don't want to label a whole neighborhood or system," she said.
The rating system will attempt to take into account the progress of students in low achieving schools, not just whether students pass tests. The plan does not lay out how the different star levels will be determined. Board members said five star schools would have to be in the top percentage and meet all of the targets set for students of different races and economic backgrounds, among other groups.
Some board members said they could not support giving a high rating to a school where only 50 percent of students were passing statewide tests.
The new system rewards schools that close the achievement gap for students of color, those in special education and those who are from low-income families.
The rating system will force schools to focus on the achievement of two formerly overlooked student groups, those who are chronically absent and those who are first and second generation immigrants learning English.
Fifteen percent of a school's overall rating will be based on student attendance; officials will consider the percentage of students who are absent more than 20 days a year. Some board members are uncomfortable with that percentage and believe the category is given too much importance.
Schools will have to pay close attention to how well their immigrant students are learning English. The achievement of these students will represent 10 percent of a school's rating, even if a school only has 10 of these students.