Maryland released its first star ratings for public schools Tuesday, with results that showed 70 percent of schools in the state earned three or four stars out of five.
In Harford County, 10 schools achieved five-star status, and another 27 garnered four stars.
The new rating system, developed by state leaders over a two-year process, is part of an accountability system required by the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Advocates say the ratings grade schools in a holistic way, factoring not just test scores but whether the school has a well-rounded curriculum — and also factors such as whether students are chronically absent.
“It is the first time in state history that we have been able to give school communities, parents, staff, everyone such a detailed look at each school. Never have we had such a clear picture,” Maryland State School Superintendent Karen Salmon said.
Harford schools receiving five stars are Jarrettsville, Emmorton, Churchville and Homestead/Wakefield elementary schools, and North Harford, C. Milton Wright, Bel Air, Patterson Mill, Fallston and Harford Technical high schools.
Harford schools Superintendent Sean Bulson, speaking during Board of Education meeting on Monday ahead of the release of the ratings, said officials had gotten a preview and that local schools “look pretty good.”
Yet he cautioned the public: “Please take [the ratings] with a grain of salt — it’s hard to boil down a snapshot of what a school contributes in the life of kids to five stars and have that somehow come together and really describe that school.”
Bulson said such ratings systems can be “a helpful indicator” to give a sense of how local schools rank. He encouraged people to “spend a little time digging” into the information supporting the rankings.
“Like with everything, education is complicated work, so trying to boil it down to something like this, it’s not always 100-percent accurate,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s worth looking at.”
The new system was designed so that only a small group of schools would receive one- or five-star ratings. Only 35 schools in the state received one star, the lowest rating, while 219 received five stars. The bottom 5 percent of schools in the state — including some two-star schools — will be identified as needing a plan for improvement.
Most of those schools are in Baltimore City, where 23 schools earned one star. Many of the other schools that earned a one-star rating are alternative programs that students attend for a brief period of time after disciplinary issues. More than half of the city’s schools received one- or two-star ratings. These schools largely educate minority students from low-income families.
Some education analysts worry that ranking schools in this way will simply give a black eye to poor schools. Local school leaders also fear it could stigmatize schools that don’t receive a four- or five-star rating.
Maryland State School Board President and Chairman Justin Hartings said that was far from the intent.
“If we as a state and as local communities are going to have serious conversations about how we improve our schools we have to be honest about how our schools are doing,” Hartings said. “There are no one-star kids. All of our kids are five-star kids. We just need to make sure our schools are providing them the best service.”
Schools were rated based on a variety of factors, with each one earning a school a certain number of points. Besides test scores and academic growth, schools earned points for what percentage of students are missing more than 10 percent of school days and how well schools do in teaching English language learners, who are usually immigrants.
In addition, schools earned points for the growth in student learning, and not just what percentage of the student body passed the state standardized test. Student learning was a measure long sought by leaders at lower performing schools who have complained they would get little recognition or credit for taking a student who might be many years behind in reading, for instance, nearly up to grade level.
Carroll County continued to be one of the highest performing school systems in the region, with the 95 percent of its schools rated four or five stars. Howard County had 91 percent of its schools rated four and five stars. Baltimore County had 96 of its 160 schools rated as four or five stars.
Regarding Harford, Bulson said school system officials could provide a more detailed presentation on the rankings, provided there is interest, once the community has had time to digest the information.
“Anything that gets folks in this community really considering how we do better work on behalf of our kids, I think, is still a benefit,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Zhang contributed to this article.