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Mass. school evaluations called ‘unfair’

Institute says state doesn’t account for effects of poverty on test scores

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Mass. school evaluations called ‘unfair’
Teachers were excessed from Brighton High School when it entered turnaround status earlier this year.

The state’s system for evaluating school quality — and determining when schools are in need of an overhaul — is unfair to those that serve poorer students, according to a Thomas B. Fordham Institute report.

On the Web

Fordham Institute’s “Rating the Ratings” report: http://preview.tinyurl.com/y8b48e3f

Lower-income students tend to have less access to outside resources and supports, and so often perform less successfully on measures of achievement — unless schools can intervene to bridge this equity gap. According to the Fordham Institute, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s ranking system puts too much weight on achievement metrics and too little on student growth. As such, DESE does not distinguish between schools that are successfully doing this equity work yet need more time to get disadvantaged students up to par, and schools that are letting their students fall behind. The system thus is prone to rank schools based on the resources of the population they serve rather than on the quality of their instruction and practices, the Fordham report asserts.

“Achievement measures are strongly correlated with prior achievement — and given that low-income students tend to enter school far behind their peers, high-poverty schools are likely to fare poorly under such measures, no matter how good the school and its teachers are,” states the report. “Growth measures, however, quantify changes in achievement over time, independent of whether students start as high or low performers; hence they’re less correlated with poverty.”

Dangers of a misplaced turnaround

When low-quality rankings are mistakenly attached to effective schools, it risks triggering a turnaround for that school — which in the Boston Public Schools almost always means dismissing all teachers and asking them to reapply for positions.

Turnaround processes are intended to rapidly bring a troubled school up to speed, but many teachers say the practice of mass staff dismissals, or “excessing,” can be counterproductive. Critics of this approach say it can cause effective teachers to be removed due to their students’ poverty. Martha Boisselle, an award-winning teacher at Brighton High School, was among those dismissed when the school went into turnaround this year. While she ultimately did sign on to return, she said in May that many talented teachers moved on. Matthew Clark, a history teacher at the Brighton, said in a Banner op-ed that the school serves a high concentration of high-need students. Students with special needs constituted 25 percent of enrollment, and English Language Learners represented 41 percent. A number of the English learners were older, recently-arrived immigrants with gaps in their formal education. As such, Clark said, Brighton faces unusually strong challenges to meeting certain achievement measures, and it is more resources, not teacher churn, that would make the difference.

To fairly assess schools with high-poverty enrollments, Fordham Institute says the state’s ranking system must put greater emphasis on student growth. However, Liam Kerr, Massachusetts state director of Democrats for Education Reform, argues for keeping the focus on achievement while ensuring more comprehensive resources go to neighborhoods whose schools have worse quality rankings, as well as to the schools themselves. According to Kerr, a high emphasis on achievement indictors helps ensure everyone is raised to the same level.

“Growth is measuring progress toward a goal, but the goal is more important,” Kerr told the Banner. “I want political leaders, the state, the government, focused on making sure students are hitting the goal.”

Kerr does not see a low-quality ranking as punitive or potentially endangering to a school’s performance. Schools that are not meeting achievement expectations need more attention and resources directed not only to the school but also to programs in the wider community so as to combat any barriers to success, he said.

“If you think of what can we do as a society, as a government, to give kids that are starting behind as much chance as we can, school is the place that we as a society have kids for the most amount of time with the clearest responsibility,” Kerr said. “What better case is there than investing in early childhood education, in student health, in safe communities, than having an accountability system that says, ‘Look, there’s a level that’s acceptable and a lot of schools aren’t on it’?”

Low achievement is a better indicator of a school population in need of aid than low growth, Kerr said. Smaller levels of growth at a school could mean it hosts well-served students who are continuing to steadily improve, whereas low-achievement means that, regardless of the reason, students are not at the level they are expected to be.

Annissa Essaibi-George, vice chair of the Boston City Council Committee on Education, said that money can be the key to educational improvements, yet too often additional financial support only is provided long enough for a school to pull out of a critically poor-ranking. The improvements may be lost when the funds that supported them are then taken away.

“The biggest problem with any school that goes into turnaround,” Essaibi-George told the Banner, “is that we flood them with cash so they can basically do anything they’d like to pick up their numbers, and once they pick up their numbers, we walk away from them.”

Evaluating the rankings

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, state departments may create their own school accountability measures and submit plans for Department of Education approval. The Fordham Institute evaluated 16 submitted plans, including the one from Massachusetts, on three evaluation measures. While Massachusetts’ system was rated “weak” on fairness to all schools, Fordham marked it as “strong” on the clarity and transparency of its school quality labels and “strong” on encouraging schools to put focus on advancing all students, as opposed to only getting mid-level achievers to clear a certain benchmark while neglecting high-achievers and those who appear to be very far behind. Under Fordham’s assessment, Colorado and Arizona’s ranking systems were declared “strong” in all categories.

According to Essaibi-George, problems of transparency and accuracy still remain. For one, schools are in part evaluated on graduation rates of even those students who transfer out and fail to graduate from a different school.

“[The ranking system] doesn’t look at any of the nuances that may be particular to urban districts,” Essaibi-George said.

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