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Maryland school grading system: Better but imperfect

Maryland's Board of Education is advancing a new, five-star rating system for the state's public schools.
Maryland's Board of Education is advancing a new, five-star rating system for the state's public schools. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Patuxent Homestead)

If we were to rank Maryland's proposed new school grading system based on improvement, it would get five stars for sure — though that's mainly a reflection of how terrible the old No Child Left Behind-based system was. If we were ranking it on its own merits, the results would be mixed. The new system reflects a broader array of factors in judging whether a school is successful, and on the whole, it's more useful for parents than the old one was. But it is still liable to paper over many of the distinctions that determine whether a school is truly providing a high quality education.

For the first time next school year, every Maryland school will receive a rating under a system the state school board is expected to vote on Tuesday morning.

Maryland was a leader in the school accountability movement, having published data about performance more than a decade before the passage of NCLB. But the information has generally been presented in such a way that would frustrate any parent trying to determine whether one school is better than another. The state Department of Education publishes test scores, attendance rates, demographics and more for every public school in Maryland, and it's possible, with some effort, to determine whether students at one elementary school score better than students at another in third grade math, for example. But developing anything like an overall sense of a school's quality — much less anything like a ranking — is next to impossible. The NCLB determinations of whether a school was meeting adequate yearly progress weren't much help either, as the focus on growth in test scores obscured actual achievement and because the assessments were myopically tilted in favor of reading and math testing to the exclusion of all else.

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State education leaders are infuriated by the passage of legislation they see as a power grab by the General Assembly that will diminish their role in deciding how schools are held accountable over the next 15 years.

The proposed new system is more holistic. Math and reading test scores still count for more than anything else (both in terms of raw achievement and student growth), but the calculation of school quality also takes into account other subjects like art, social studies, science and physical education; attendance; success of English language learners and, for high schools, graduation rates. As with any such endeavor, there's plenty of room to argue about what factors are included and how they're weighted. We like the inclusion of a metrics related to chronic absenteeism and performance of English language learners, for example, and the fact that schools with unacceptably large achievement gaps between groups of students — racial minorities, special education students, low-income students, etc. — are at risk of losing a star will give the system a powerful incentive to ensure equity. We question other elements, such as the inclusion of measures related both to performance in and access to a well-rounded curriculum and the decision to make a school climate survey worth 10 percent of the final ranking.

All of that can be tweaked by the state Board of Education as it gets feedback on the system, which itself was the product of extensive consultation with various stakeholder groups.

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Of bigger concern is whether the system as written will meet the federal government's requirement that academics have "much greater weight" than other factors in the ranking system. The General Assembly, in an unwise bit of meddling in education policy and over Gov. Larry Hogan's veto, prohibited MSDE from making academics count more than 65 percent. The U.S. Department of Education has already indicated that may be a problem. We urge the legislature to reverse itself on that point.

Whether these rankings will prove useful or not will depend largely on how they and the data that underlie them will be presented. The star system can make very different schools seem equivalent. For example, a generally high performing school that does a bad job of educating a relatively small population of minority students may come out with the same number of stars as a school with small achievement gaps but also lower overall performance. It's particularly difficult to devise a single metric that can adequately compare a school that draws from a largely disadvantaged population with a low academic starting point and one in an affluent community whose students start out at a higher level. The fairest measure of the first school's quality might tilt heavily in favor of student growth whereas the second should be considered based on its level of achievement. Will the data be presented in a way that allows parents to appreciate the relative strengths of both? And what will the cut-offs for the stars be? Will they be five equally sized groups, or will five stars be reserved for just a handful of top schools? The board hasn't decided.

We would be tempted to give the effort an overall grade of a C thus far, if the legislature had not also (bizarrely) forbidden letter grades for schools. So we'll call it three stars instead — a definite improvement but with many questions left to answer before we can say for certain that it will tell parents what they need to know.

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