Reacting to an old system for judging schools that was inflexible, punitive and required many hours of testing, the Maryland General Assembly in 2017 gave this legislative message to the state school board: Enough.
So education officials designed a new rating system that limited the role of test scores and tried to look holistically at schools. Now schools also are judged on such factors as surveys of students and educators and how well-rounded the curriculum is.
With two years of results now in, some critics say Maryland’s five-star rating system — in which a school’s test results account for roughly 60% of its score — may have gone too far. They charge the new system can inflate the quality of a low performing school and obscure gaps in performance between students of different races and economic groups.
Among those expressing concern are state school board members David Steiner and Justin Hartings, who note there are schools that have earned three and four stars even though most of their students have not achieved grade level on state tests, known as proficiency.
For instance, a review by The Baltimore Sun found that Baltimore’s William Paca Elementary School earned three stars even though fewer than 9% of its students are proficient in math and fewer than 7% are proficient in English. And Sudbrook Magnet Middle in Baltimore County, where only 11% of students passed the math test, earned a four-star rating.
The weight Maryland’s system gives to "core academic achievement is just too low,” Steiner said.
Also seen as problematic is the shift away from highlighting how low-income, minority and special education students perform on state tests in favor of looking at the achievement of the entire school body.
“We have a racial and economic achievement gap statewide that is persistent,” said Roger Schulman, president of the Fund For Educational Excellence in Baltimore. But in looking through the data, he has found four-star schools where there was a 40-point gap between the pass rate for white students and black students.
“I am not sure, if I am the parent of a black or brown student, that my child is getting an education that would be four-star,” Schulman said.
Even those who criticize the new Maryland system say they wouldn’t go back to the old one, but suggest adjustments are needed. And the system has many supporters, who see the new ratings as an antidote to years of too much testing.
Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, regards Maryland’s system as a good one. “I think if you were to compare this to the average state, Maryland is including a more diverse array of measures, which I would say is a good thing," he said.
The Maryland State Department of Education declined to make officials available for an interview for this article.
A third of all schools received three stars this year, up from about a quarter last year, according to an analysis by The Sun. Both the number of top schools with five-star ratings, and the number of failing schools with one star, decreased.
Nationwide, states have replaced systems that existed under the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind. It required what critics said were impossible-to-meet criteria that left far too many schools labeled as failing. The law encouraged schools to teach reading and math at the expense of the arts, social studies and science, critics said, and they said NCLB punished schools with unnecessarily harsh measures, including getting rid of all the staff and principals.
The law also placed huge emphasis on how low-income, minority and special education students were doing. As a result, a school might have 80 percent of its students scoring as advanced on tests but be labeled failing because minorities and other selected groups weren’t performing as well.
While states were asked to correct such excesses in their new systems, many observers agree Maryland now needs to restore more emphasis on measuring the achievement of minorities and other special groups. Maryland still calculates the performance of those groups and lists them on a state website, but the results do not play role in the state ratings.
“These misleading ratings do not provide a strong incentive for schools to prioritize closing gaps in opportunity and achievement,” said Allison Socol, a director of The Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
Polikoff said Maryland’s new accountability system is an outlier compared to other states in that it relies less on test scores because the legislature limited their use to no more than 65% of the formula.
Hartings noted that using that formula, only 35 elementary schools statewide received one- and two-star ratings. “The results say that most schools are on the high end. If that is what is occurring, then that is good news,” he said. But he wants the state to do more analysis of some of those disparities in schools with high ratings and low scores. “I think that is a discussion that the [state school] board needs to have,” he said.
And Steiner would like to see the state give more points to schools that have raised the level of performance from one year to the next. Across the country, several education experts said, many states are beginning to recognize the growth or progress a school makes as more important than the absolute proficiency.
While Maryland may have a unique system to rate schools, the results are not that different from other states.
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The distribution of schools from one star to five star in Maryland looks a lot like the results in states that give more weight to test scores, said Anne Hyslop, an assistant director at the Alliance for an Excellent Education.
Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit, said that is because many of the other factors Maryland uses are related to academic achievement. For instance, Maryland’s formula gives points for student attendance. Schools where a lot of students are chronically absent are not likely to have high test scores, Aldeman said, so factoring in attendance yields a similar result.
“There is no real science to this and there is a lot of art," he said.
Hyslop said Maryland could tweak the accountability system to get rid of some of the concerns that have been raised. Some states, for instance, require schools to have a certain minimum of their students passing standardized tests in order to get a three or four rating.
Chris Minnich, CEO at an educational consulting firm called NWEA in Portland, Oregon, said all states "are wrestling with, ‘How much do we account for other factors that lead into academic performance?’
“I think people still care about these ratings," he said. “People want it to be fair. They believe just using test scores isn’t fair." What all to use instead, he said, remains a question.
Baltimore Sun data reporter Christine Zhang contributed to this article.