Janresseger: School Ratings Not Only Tell You Little about Schools, They Contribute to Economic Segregation

Jack Schneider, a professor and education historian at the College of the Holy Cross and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, points out that the school district in Boston, Massachusetts encourages parents to choose from among the public schools across the district.  In a short commentary,  State School Rankings ‘Virtually Worthless,’ Schneider explains that many parents make that choice pretty much based on overall school ratings assigned by the state.

How does Massachusetts calculate its school ratings?  “Each year, the state classifies schools into one of five levels, with the ‘highest performing’ designated Level 1. This practice, though distinct in its details, is in keeping with what is done in the vast majority of states. The theory behind such rankings, whether devised as numerical scores, A-F grades, or narrative labels, is that parents and communities want a clear and simple indicator of school quality. Unfortunately, there are… flaws that make these levels virtually worthless. The first and most obvious problem with state-issued ratings of schools is that they are based primarily on a flawed measure: student standardized test scores.”

Schneider believes such school “grades,” “report cards” and rating systems show parents very little about the quality of schools. Schneider explains all the factors about school quality that test-based ratings omit: “Last fall, MassINC conducted a poll of Boston parents and found that more than two-thirds of them identified as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ all of the following: the quality of the teachers and administrators; school safety and discipline; the school’s academic programming; college and career readiness; class sizes; facility quality; the values promoted by the school; the school’s approach to discipline; and the diversity of the teachers and administrators. These critical dimensions of school quality are mostly ignored in the vast majority of statewide rating systems….”

Also, explains Schneider, “(S)chools are not uniformly good or bad. As most of us know from experience, schools—as structures, organizations, and communities—have different strengths and weaknesses. Schools that are struggling in some ways may be thriving in others. And schools with illustrious reputations often have a lot to work on.”

And finally, Schneider names the reality that school ratings are shaping our society: “Perhaps most importantly, ratings shape the decisions parents make about where to live and where to send their children to school.”  Although Schneider does not explore the details of this important observation,  academic research demonstrates the reasons why school ratings are likely to reinforce growing housing segregation by family income.

Over a half century of sociological research (dating back to the landmark 1966 Coleman report) demonstrates a strong correlation between overall school achievement and aggregate family income. When states rate schools by their aggregate test scores, the schools whose students are wealthy tend to get an A, and the schools serving very poor children too frequently get a D or an F.  Here are academic experts discussing how test scores reflect a community’s aggregate economic level, not school quality.

In 2011, the Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Based on Reardon’s research, in a 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center warning against the continued reliance on No Child Left Behind’s strategy of testing children, rating schools by scores, and punishing the schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo caution policymakers: “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our highest scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board. We must also deal with governmentally determined housing patterns that segregate our children… One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality. This has not happened. Shining a light does not provide the social and educational learning essentials for our neediest children.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in another 2016 National Education Policy Report, summarize what was misguided about school accountability policy imposed by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act: “As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.”

How does this relate to test-based school accountability?  Last fall, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Test-and-punish accountability since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was enacted, has condemned as “failing” the poorest schools and school districts whose test scores, according to academic research, are undermined by the economic circumstances of their communities and families. In lock-step, states have bought in to holding schools accountable and exacerbated the problem by ranking schools with numerical rankings or letter grades—again based on standardized test scores—that encourage wealthier families who can afford it to move to affluent communities that brag about A-rated schools and to abandon the schools in poor communities. For sixteen years, school accountability policies mandated by federal and state governments have been contributing to the economic resegregation of America’s metropolitan areas.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...