If Kentucky’s new education plan lives up to expectations, it’s going to get a lot easier to understand how public schools are doing in the state. That’s important because a clearer, more reliable picture on school performance gives school leaders, parents and education advocates more power to make schools better for Kentucky students.
But there’s still a big “if.”
Right now, Kentucky schools are graded on a 100-point scale. Depending on where schools fall on that scale, they can earn a “Distinguished,” “Proficient,” or “Needs Improvement” rating.
The state’s commissioner of education, Stephen Pruitt, says the current system is “overly complex and not a true reflection of school quality.” In August, he supported the state board of education’s decision to approve a new school accountability system using a five-star rating. That new system will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education on Monday as part of the state’s federally required education plan.
Unfortunately, Kentucky still hasn’t figured out what will earn a school five stars out of five, and so on down the line. In D.C., for example, where they are also planning to use a five-star rating system, it’s broken down intuitively: Schools in the top 20 percent get 5 stars. Schools scoring between 60 and 80 percent get 4 stars, and the middle 20 percent get 3 stars, etc. You get the picture.
If Kentucky decides to do anything but that, the value of the five-star system would be lost. How much confidence would you have in a system that gives a four-star rating for getting 51 percent of the total points? Or a system that gives three stars to schools that get 37 percent? Is that really “OK”? And how many people do you think will realize that stars aren’t moving up the scale at equal increments?
These aren’t unrealistic scenarios. In Florida, a school can get an “A” grade for getting at least 62 percent of the total points, and a B for 54 points. Florida’s not alone. In many states, the second best rating (the equivalent of a “B” in a state that rates schools A-F, or a “Proficient” in Kentucky’s old system) could be bestowed on any school that barely gets over the 50 percent hump. But most of us would never expect a B from a teacher if we scored 54 percent on a test. That’s why the state’s indecision on this issue is a concern. When the definition of a “good” rating gets muddled, the accountability system loses power.
What makes a rating system effective is its simplicity and its ability to connect to a commonly held sense of value.
We use five-star ratings to judge just about everything. We all have a pretty keen sense that a 3-star hotel is OK, but not great, or that we should avoid a restaurant with only one star.
Applying this type of rating system to public schools makes it instantly familiar and meaningful to parents, or anyone who is interested in knowing if everything is on track at their school or if there’s cause for concern. It can spark a conversation and plan of action to increase support to schools that are struggling, and it helps inform parents who are looking for a school to best meet their child’s need. But this all falls apart if the ratings are skewed in a way that’s out of touch with our intuitive understanding of what those stars mean.
Kentucky is poised for great things. State leaders have acknowledged the growing achievement gap, and have set out to make closing it a priority. And they’ve come up with a plan for rating schools that should make it easier for parents and others to engage on school quality issues. But if they want to make it work, that five-star rating system has to be based on realistic perceptions of what each star level means. Oh, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to revamp the design of the “dashboard” that displays the ratings information. But that’s another blog for another day.