Maryland's new school metric

The new system for measuring school progress announced by the Maryland State Department of Education this week is being touted as a great advance over the one it replaces. State officials say the School Progress Index aims to cut in half the percentage of students who fail to score proficient or better on standardized tests by 2017 and that it sets more realistic targets for what schools can achieve. Yet its complexity and the lack of transparency regarding how school performance is calculated are enough to raise questions about whether the new system really represents much of an improvement over the old.

Maryland developed the School Progress Index in order to receive a federal waiver from the requirements of the Bush-era federal No Child Left Behind Act. Under that law, schools were judged to be failing if they didn't make "adequate yearly progress" in boosting test scores in reading and math, leading toward 100 percent proficiency in both subjects by 2014.

No Child Left Behind's greatest success was to focus national attention on the quality of American schools compared to those in other leading countries. But it also had a number of unintended consequences that undermined its usefulness, including encouraging states to lower standards and, in some instances, pushing teachers and principals to resort to cheating in order to show progress.

When it became apparent that even many otherwise high-performing schools — not just in Maryland but around the country — were in danger of being labeled failing because they couldn't meet the law's requirement for 100 percent proficiency by 2014, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced he would grant waivers to states that agreed to embrace the Obama administration's school reform goals. In May, Maryland became one of 34 states whose applications for waivers have been approved.

Maryland's waiver allowed it to develop its own standards for evaluating schools, and the system it came up with breaks the process down to three key indicators: achievement, growth and gap reduction. The first measures the percentage of all students scoring proficient or better on standardized tests who are on track to meet the targets set for that school. The second indicator, growth, measures the change in student performance from year to year; and the third, gap reduction, measures how much progress a school has made toward reducing the performance gap between its highest- and lowest-performing students and groups of students.

Breaking down the factors that go into assessing each school's overall performance gives educators a far more granular view of where schools are succeeding as well as where improvements are needed. But it also requires some mighty data crunching to yield the weighted numerical indexes used to score each school's performance, and not everyone will find their meaning easy to grasp.

Calculating the School Progress Index for a single elementary-middle school, for example, involves manipulating a matrix of no fewer than 49 separate data points which, when run through the system's computers, produce an overall score expressed numerically as a value between 0 and 1. Parents who aren't professional statisticians could easily drive themselves crazy trying to figure out what the numbers mean for their child's fourth-grade reading class.

And they shouldn't have to. There are few things more frustrating than being presented with a barely comprehensible statistical measure that tells people little about what they really want to know. Of course, as people become more familiar with the new system and how it works, those concerns may fade. Parents are pretty resourceful when it comes to judging whether the school their kids attend is doing its job, and to the trained eye of an educator, the numbers paint a much more detailed and in-depth picture of a school's strengths and weaknesses while pointing to multiple paths toward needed improvements.

The importance of the new metric may still boil down to the same kinds of questions the No Child Left Behind law set out to answer: Are students making steady progress toward proficiency in math and reading? Are they developing the skills they will need to graduate and be successful in college or the work world? Are the achievement gaps along racial, ethnic and class lines being reduced? Given the choice between the overly simplistic No Child Left Behind pass/fail system and one that may prove too complex, we'll take the latter. It at least provides useful tools for administrators, principals and teachers to improve performance. But we hope state officials will work to translate its findings in a way that is readily accessible to parents and students, too.

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