What will stars in the new school rating system really mean?

The Maryland school board approved a new five-star rating system last Tuesday to assess the quality of the state's public schools and help parents measure their academic performance.

As is the case with many new, broad policy initiatives, especially one likely to influence classroom decisions through 2030, a lot of details still need be worked out.


As school board president Andrew Smarick noted just after the vote, the board members must decide how to define what distinguishes a one-star school from a two-star school, or a four star from a five star.

The rating system is based on various factors, including surveys of parents and teachers and the rate of absenteeism. But 65 percent of the rating is based on academic measures — primarily test scores. All those pieces of data from each school will be distilled into one percentile ranking. How those percentile rankings will translate into stars remains an open question.


The easiest way to rate schools would be to divide all of the ranked schools into five equal groups, the staff and the board members said. Under this scenario, a one-star school would have a percentile rank that falls in the bottom 20 percent of all the state schools, and two-star schools would fall between the 20 and 40 percentile, the three star between the 40th and 60th percentile, and so on.

But state school board members are squeamish about such a plan.

"Do we want the five star to be the top 20 percent? Or should it be the top 1 percent or 2 percent?" Smarick asked at one of the board meetings before the vote.

One concern among the board members is that even the top 20 percent of schools currently have pass rates as low as 50 percent on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the annual state exam known as PARCC. Students in grades three through eight take the reading and math portion of the exam. High school students take it at the end of specific courses.

Explaining the rationale for giving a school five stars if only half its students are passing that test would be a public relations nightmare, some board members said.

"What can we defend to the public?" Smarick asked.

Board members suggested schools not be classified as five star unless all of their student subgroups — disadvantaged students, black and Hispanic students, special education students and immigrant students still learning English — are meeting academic targets.

The Maryland State Department of Education has not yet run the data to score all the schools on the percentile scale. As a result, school board members don't know how different approaches to the five-star rating system might appear.