What makes a good school?
That seemingly simple question is going through the education-policy wringer right now. And the answer (not surprisingly if you’ve ever been on the business end of that particular ringer) is anything but simple.
The U.S. Department of Education is busy these days putting together the nuts and bolts of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and the current debate centers on the best way to measure a school’s academic performance for accountability purposes.
It’s a debate that I know well from the five years I worked at the Denver Public Schools (DPS).
DPS has a school-rating system called the School Performance Framework (SPF). It includes measures beyond just academic performance (despite the “kids are only test scores” malarkey that gets thrown at DPS and education reformers a lot). But a big focus is on student learning. (What a concept!)
The big debate at DPS, as it is with ESSA now, was what’s the more important question to ask when rating a school’s academic performance?
Is it: Are the school’s students learning year to year? (“academic growth”)
Or: What have students learned? (“academic proficiency” or their “status” at the time they took their state’s standardized test.)
In the early days of Denver’s SPF, the premium was on growth. We wanted to make sure schools were rewarded for kids who were progressing academically, especially the kids who were below grade level and needed to catch up. Denver’s schools serve a lot of kids who are behind, and that growth is more valuable, the thinking went, than a school that serves mostly grade-level (proficient) kids and merely keeps them there.
That’s still the main line of thinking in DPS, but it’s shifted considerably in the wake of criticism that the SPF was giving schools too much credit for growth and not setting a high enough bar for proficiency.
In this Denver Post story, DPS Board Member Happy Haynes explained the shift this way:
Schools rightfully have gotten credit for growing kids, but it has inflated how well they’re doing overall. Growing them is great but you still have to get a certain number of kids to be proficient. The goal of growing them is to get more kids at proficiency each year.
The downside to that shift, however, is the concern that putting the premium on “proficient” encourages schools to put their premium only on students who are within reach of proficiency (this has been termed “educational triage”), because that’s the progress that’s rewarded most—more so than getting kids from way behind to a little bit behind or from proficient to advanced.
A group of education researchers and advocates led by University of Southern California’s Morgan Polikoff recently sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education to argue against requiring states to use proficiency levels in their ESSA accountability plans. It suggests other measures that reward progress across all performance levels.
Democrats For Education Reform’s (DFER) Charles Barone responded by making a case for proficiency and asking:
If percent proficient, or something like proficiency that focuses on meeting a particular standard rather than merely making progress anywhere on the continuum between abject failure and absolute superiority, is not the ultimate goal, what was the point of the past decade’s mantra of ‘college and career readiness?’
Tom Boasberg is in his eighth year as Denver’s superintendent, and he’s been at DPS since the creation of its SPF school scorecard. I can’t imagine there’s anyone who’s been in more growth-versus-proficiency debates than he has. And I know from experience, he brings a big brain and an even bigger heart into every one of them. He favors balance over “versus.”
“The systems should clearly be both—and, with both growth and status measures because of the importance of each,” he told me.
“At the same time, growth should receive a heavier weight. The more a system increases the weight on status, the more the system measures not how much a school is helping a student make progress but rather the level at which students enter the school. And that generally serves to artificially inflate the assessment of schools serving largely well-off kids and underestimate the work in high-poverty schools.”
So that puts the premium on making sure students are learning, particularly high-needs students, but with a close eye on what they’ve learned and how prepared they are for success at the next level.
Sounds like a good school to me.