Mass. rating plan deemed unfair to high-poverty schools
Report faults state system for not using ‘growth’ as bigger factor
MASSACHUSETTS GETS A poor grade from a Washington-based policy organization on how its plan to comply with a new federal education law treats schools with high rates of poverty. But a number of education policy thinkers in the state are pushing back against the report and say its message undermines an important pillar of education reform policy aimed at precisely those same schools.
The Fordham Institute report, titled “Rating the Ratings,” looked at the plans submitted to the US Department of Education by 16 states and the District of Columbia and graded them on three measures. Massachusetts scored well on two of them, but tied with Louisiana for the lowest score on a third measure, which asked whether a state’s accountability system was fair to all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.
The report rated the Massachusetts plan for treating all schools fairly as “weak,” the lowest of three ratings, because the state uses achievement levels as the basis for 75 percent of a school’s accountability rating, while measures of student growth count for only 25 percent of the rating. Achievement levels measure how well students score on the state’s standardized math and English tests, while growth scores measure how much progress a student has made from where he or she performed the previous year.
Fordham argues that reliance on achievement scores is not fair because they are highly correlated with poverty rates and with students’ prior achievement. According to this line of reasoning, the scores wind up penalizing schools based on their student population, not on the quality of the school’s instruction or teachers.
Under No Child Left Behind, which measured schools based on achievement alone, the report says that “nearly every school serving a high proportion of low-income students was eventually designated as failing.” The report says that, while many high-poverty schools are, in fact, not serving students well, “it’s absurd to conclude that that’s the case with nearly all of them.”
The report rated state plans as “strong” if growth measures account for at least 50 percent of a school’s rating, “medium” if growth counts for 33 percent to 50 percent of the rating, and “weak” if it counts for less than 33 percent of the school’s score.
Growth measures should “constitute the majority of summative ratings,” the report says. “[T]he more states focus on growth instead of achievement, the fairer they will be to high-poverty schools.”
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education responded to the report in very measured tones, calling the question of how much weight to give to growth scores “a delicate policy discussion.” In a statement, the department said only that having growth count for 25 percent of a school’s rating “reflects our current practice.”
A number of education policy leaders in the state, however, were critical of the Fordham rating and its premise that greater use of growth scores is a good thing.
Relying heavily on growth measures undermines the basic foundation of the standards-based movement in education, said Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute. The idea “was to say that all kids will have access to the same high-quality curricular materials and schools would be held accountable for raising the bar no matter where they lived or what their background was,” said Stergios. “The use of growth measures creates an educational accountability system that accepts ‘separate but equal’ as a matter of fact – and rewards schools based on the different populations they serve.”
Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said schools need to strive to get all students to a “readiness” benchmark before graduating. “If we make growth too large a factor, we actually could be leaving kids behind by congratulating ourselves for moving a kid from a 3rd grade reading level to a 5th grade level when the child is in 7th grade,” she said.
“If you’re gearing public benchmarks toward areas where absolute achievement is low, you’ll have more political attention and public investment in those areas, which is something all Democrats should agree on,” said Kerr.Massachusetts got a high rating from Fordham on the other two measures that were evaluated: whether a state’s rating of schools was easy for educators and the public to understand and whether its accountability system encouraged a focus on all students by avoiding the use of a threshold to measure student achievement. A system that only looked at whether students made it over a bar determining basic proficiency, for example, might encourage schools to focus heavily on boosting achievement among students performing just below that level, rather than work to raise achievement levels among all students.
The 17 state plans were submitted to the federal education department to meet a first-round deadline of April of this year. The remaining 34 states must submit plans by September.