Columns » Max Brantley

Give the new school report card a D

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The state issued its first school report cards using letter grades, A-F, to rank hundreds of state public schools.

Public school critics hail it as a needed step toward accountability and a help for parents.

I'm skeptical.

The report cards do little to measure the true differences in schools. There's an A-rated charter school in Pulaski County where students likely to achieve — white children from middle class backgrounds — don't seem to advance much under the school's tutelage. There's an F-rated school in Little Rock that has made strides in achievement, a small miracle with a population of transient, poor families, many of whom speak English as a second language.

Some points are awarded in the grading formula for poor populations and score advancement, but not nearly enough to overcome economic advantages.

I received a letter about this from someone involved in education. What follows borrows heavily from his careful analysis of what's wrong with the new grading system.

The once-a-year criterion-based tests don't measure growth in student achievement across grades. Norm-referenced tests — comparing scores with like students rather than on knowledge of a subject — are better indicators.

This method of testing doesn't allow comparisons between Arkansas and other states.

The "best" schools tend to be those that serve "elite" populations. An elementary in Little Rock's wealthiest neighborhood and a majority white, upper-income charter school whose motivated parents overcome immense distances to enroll are almost certain to perform well. But the tests don't measure whether value has been added to these already advantaged kids.

The tests look backward, rather than forward. The grades, released near the end of the 2014-15 school year, are based on scores a year ago. Scores need to be produced sooner to make quicker adjustments. Some schools have, indeed, made changes this year that don't reflect in last year's scores.

The scores exclude many schools: alternative schools, schools operated by youth correctional facilities and others. Yet many low-rated schools grapple with big at-risk populations, too.

The grades tell us nothing about recent changes in leadership, age of a school or the nature of the community where the school is located.

High schools with poor test scores can make up ground with high graduation rates. These graduates sometimes are unprepared. I'm reminded of a famous charter school that touts its graduation rate. Some conventional public schools nearby have shown better college success than the charter school's students, as measured by graduates making sufficient college progress to retain state scholarships.

The state uses complex formulas – different ones for elementary and high schools — to produce a simple letter grade. This grade suggests apples-to-apples comparisons, when they are anything but.

A difference of a scant few points can separate an F from a D and a D from a C. Does a B equal a B? I'm thinking of a specific inner-city high school with a majority population of impoverished kids. Is it really "worse" than a magnet high school in the same city with its self-selected better-off student body, because of a seven-point difference on a 300-point scale?

I'd normally credit the person who contributed most of this critique. But he had implored me not to bring my old charter school doubts into the discussion. I don't want to appear to be singling him out by naming him. He heads a charter school development organization. It operates a school that got an F on the report card. It targets so-called underserved kids. It aims to be high performing despite high poverty. It's not easy. Is it fair to judge his school a failure based on a single grade from a standardized test administered a year ago? I'm not ready to say so.

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