Maryland released its first star ratings for every public school in the state Tuesday, with results that gave a surprisingly large number of schools — 60 percent — four or five stars out of five.
The new rating system, developed by state leaders over an intensive two-year process, is part of an accountability system required by the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA as it is known. Schools are graded in a more holistic way, factoring in not just test scores but whether the school has a well-rounded curriculum and 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,” said Maryland State School Superintendent Karen Salmon.
The system was designed so that only a small group of schools would receive one- or five-star ratings. Only 35 of the state’s more than 1,300 schools 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 an intervention 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 trouble with discipline.
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 Chair 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.”
What may surprise some parents and students is the number of schools that have long been considered top-notch that got a four-star rating rather than a five-star. City College in Baltimore City and Dulaney and Towson high schools in Baltimore County missed earning enough points to get the coveted five-star rating, with Towson missing by just one percentage point. Walt Whitman and Chevy Chase high schools, two powerhouses in the D.C. suburbs, were also four-star schools.
On the other hand, there were schools that have not been considered at the top of the pack that earned five stars. Hampstead Hill in East Baltimore, which has a high percentage of immigrant students, was one of just three city schools to earn five stars. Hampstead was rated higher than both Roland Park Elementary/Middle, which earned four stars, and Thomas Johnson Elementary/Middle in Federal Hill, which earned three.
How the ratings are determined
Many of the top-performing high schools earning five stars were magnet schools where students must meet an academic standard to gain acceptance, such as Polytechnic Institute in the city and Eastern Technical High School and Western School of Technology in Baltimore County. Several arts high schools were rated five stars, including the Baltimore School for the Arts in the city, the Carver Center in Baltimore County, and the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Washington County.
Schools were rated based on a variety of factors, with each category 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, 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 nearly up to grade level.
The large number of four- and five-star schools concerned some state school board members, who said they believe the system placed too much emphasis on factors other than academic achievement. The Maryland legislature passed a law in 2017 that said academic achievement — both raw test score data and student progress over a year — couldn’t account for more than 65 percent of a school’s rating.
Other states place more emphasis on test scores than Maryland, said David Steiner, a state school board member.
“This was why I was so concerned with what the legislature did,” he said, adding that he hopes the public will focus more on the academic measures.
“Considering we still have so many students coming out of Maryland’s schools not prepared, I think these ratings may give too rosy a view of how the schools are doing,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank in Washington.
Some non-academic factors that are influenced by wealth make it easier for schools in affluent areas to look good, he said. He worries that some problems will go undiagnosed because of the rating system.
Among school systems in the Baltimore region, Anne Arundel County’s ratings showed a higher percentage of schools earning two and three stars. Carroll County continued to be one of the highest-performing school systems, with 95 percent of its schools rated four or five stars.
Howard County had 91 percent of its schools rated four and five stars, while Baltimore County had 96 of its 160 schools — 60 percent — rated as four or five stars.
“Generally we’re pleased with that outcome,” said Baltimore County schools Interim Superintendent Verletta White. “We know we still have work to do.”
White said she views three stars as a passing score for a school.
In Harford County, 70 percent of schools earned either a four- or five-star rating.
A number of rural school districts, some with many low-income students, performed well, including Caroline, St. Mary’s and Queen Anne’s counties. Fourteen school systems in the state had no one- or two-star schools.
Baltimore City school system CEO Sonja Santelises said she wasn’t surprised by the results, noting that they do not factor in the complexities of the city’s education system. The district has faced decades of underfunding, and many of its students come from families who live in poverty. She said that even before the results were publicized Tuesday, the district had made changes to begin transforming the lowest performing schools.
“There are some one-star schools,” she said. “But those are in communities where we’ve made changes. Many have new buildings and new leaders and critical numbers of new teachers who are working together to make change. … The ranking systems don’t say everything about the progress that’s happening in schools.”
Some of the city’s worst-rated schools likely won’t be open next year. As part of an annual review, Santelises has recommended the school board close a handful of schools where academic achievement lags.
Roots and Branches — a public charter school— is rated as the state’s second-worst school, earning just 12 points and one star. The school board will vote in January on whether to close that school and five others, each of which earned between a one- and two-star rating. The Roots and Branches principal declined to comment Tuesday.
“The rankings will look different next year,” Santelises said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Zhang and Caroline Pate contributed to this article.
To download the school ratings data and review the computer code that generated the analysis, go to www.baltimoresun.com/school-star-ratings-2018.