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Zirpoli: New Maryland school 'accountability system' gets a failing grade

The Maryland School Report Card scores were recently published by the Maryland Department of Education. This new system rates schools on a five-star scale and is billed as a school “accountability system.” The scores are based on a variety of factors, such as student academic achievement, graduation rates, curriculum, student attendance, college-readiness, and English language proficiency.

Are these scores a valid “accountability system” of our schools? I don’t think so.

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When evaluating data, it is critical to identify and understand the independent variables that are giving you the data you are looking at. A valid accountability system would measure the effectiveness of school administrators and teachers. In fact, the data used by the state are not a reflection of administrator or teacher effectiveness but are mostly a reflection of the students attending each school. Teachers do not control this variable. Nor do they control some of the other variables used in the scoring system.

To demonstrate, let’s look at two dental practices. John serves a population of patients in a poor part of town where most of the citizens don’t have insurance and don’t go to the dentist until their teeth are failing. Ben’s practice, on the other hand, is in a part of town where the patient population is wealthy. Ben’s patients see him every six months, and, thus, have healthy teeth. The state in which these two dentists practice decided to rate dentists based upon the dental hygiene scores of their patients, how often patients go to their dentists, and other variables related to dental outcomes of their patients. Dentist John receives a low score of “1” because of his patient population, not his dental skills. In fact, John is an excellent dentist because he has to take care of dental issues that his friend Ben hardly ever has to deal with. Ben receives a score of “5” because his patients have good dental hygiene and go to the dentist every six months. Ben isn’t the best dentist in the world, but given his healthy dental population, he doesn’t need to be. In fact, Ben refers his more difficult patients to John, who has more experience with difficult cases.

My fictitious story about dentists John and Ben is directly related to Maryland’s new school rating system. Just as the dental rating system does not reflect the skills of these two dentists, but rather their patient populations, the new school rating system does not reflect the skills of school administrators and teachers, but rather their student population. In fact, like the dentists, schools with the more difficult students and who receive the lowest scores may contain some of our best teachers because they are dealing with our most challenging students.

A case in point in Carroll County is the Gateway School. It received a low score of “1.” This is a school that specializes in the education of some of our county’s most challenging students being compared to schools without these same challenges. In fact, other schools send their most difficult students to the Gateway School. If we were to switch the entire population of students from the Gateway School (with a score of “1”) with the students any other school in the county with a score of “5,” I bet that next year, with the same administrators and teachers, the Gateway School, with their new student population, would also receive a “5.” What changed, students or teachers? Students changed and that’s the primary independent variable the new scoring system is measuring.

Schools have little influence over the cognitive ability or English language proficiency of their incoming students. They have little control over the attendance of their students. Yes, teachers try to modify these outcomes and use all their skills to improve the academic and social skills of their students. But they are not their parents, they are not responsible for getting them to school every morning or making sure they did their homework the night before. Teachers do not determine their students’ developmental or learning disabilities, they cannot ensure that their students eat well at home, or have a good night’s sleep before coming to school.

Teachers should be held accountable for students’ progress or lack of progress over time. A valid scoring system, however, would measure individual student baseline and progress over time, and use these measures as the primary data for teacher accountability. Thus, a teacher who moves a student from a 45 percent math proficiency to a 65 percent proficiency would score higher than a teacher who moves a student from a 90 percent to a 93 percent proficiency. The Maryland system, however, does not recognize this distinction and, thus, is invalid as an accountability system.

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