Three weeks after saying how boring it is to write about school districts, I am about to suggest we figure out a deep and useful way to compare one district to another. How is that for consistency?
The switch is not entirely my fault. After that school district rant | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/08/AR2005110800484.html I spent some time in Park City, Utah, with a group of smart and determined educators and parents who want to match their district up against all the others in the country. (Envious winter sportspersons should know that I consider strapping long thin pieces of waxed wood to my feet to be perilous folly, and I stayed as far away as possible from Park City's famous ski runs.)
Park City's public school district is relatively small, just 4,000 students and only one high school. But in the usual way we measure districts, by average standardized test scores, it is the best in the state and one of the best in the country. This is no surprise because its visual, recreational and cultural delights, such as the Sundance Film Festival, have attracted many affluent families. It has the highest average income of any school district in Utah.
Usually parents and educators in such small rich districts accept the praise given their hard-working students and at the same time try to keep too many more people from moving in and pushing up class sizes. They wouldn't think of trying to see if their schools are really as good as the test scores suggest. But Park City has more than its share of business and educational entrepreneurs who like to fiddle with new ideas. They have come up with something I think merits national attention.
They call it the "Top Ten District Report Card." They have been talking to me about it because I dabble in different ways to rate schools, and they have included the Challenge Index, a method I invented for measuring college-level test participation, as one of the items on their report card. Their overall method is much more complex than the Challenge Index, however, since it has 10 separate measuring points, including some for which there is yet very little data.
Some parts of their report card make sense to me. Some don't. Let me describe them and then urge you contact Park City Education Foundation President Mark Fischer, parent and entrepreneur, at firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know what you like, what you don't and what should be added. I have reluctantly concluded that school districts, as painful as it may be to attend their interminable school board meetings, are important, and finding a good way to compare them may help many families decide where to live.
In order to make the measurements simple and easy to understand, Fischer and former Park City superintendent Nancy DeFord, the prime movers in this project, have assigned letter grades to scores on each factor. Here are their 10 points, with commentary by me in each case:
1. Grade 3 Reading, measured by the percentage of students who score proficient. A grade of A is 90 percent and over; B is 89 to 80 percent; C, 79 to 70 percent; D, 69 to 60 percent, and F, 59 percent and under. The problem here is that each state has its own reading tests and its own definition of what constitutes third-grade proficiency. We would need a national reading test given to all third graders before we could make good comparisons across state lines.
2. Middle School Algebra, measured by the percentage of eighth graders who complete at least pre-algebra. The grading system is the same as for Grade 3 Reading. I think this standard is much too limp. I sense many of the Park City people agree with me. DeFord recently recommended they measure instead the percentage of eighth graders who have completed Algebra I. Nationally, only about 25 percent of eighth graders do so, but those who don't, limit the math and science courses they can take in high school.
3. Graduation Rate, measured by the percentage of 10th graders who graduate from high school two years later. A is 95 percent and over; B is 94 to 92 percent; C, 91 to 89 percent; D, 88 to 86 percent; and F, 85 percent and below. Utah districts will have this data next year because the state is submitting it as one of the measures of high school success under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But not all states measure graduation rates this way. I would prefer to calculate the percentage of ninth graders who graduate from high school three years later, since studies show some ninth graders cannot adjust to high school demands, are held back a grade, and eventually drop out.
4. Challenge Index, measured by the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests given in a district per graduating senior. A is 2.5; B is 2.49 to 1; C, 0.99 to 0.75; D, 0.74 to 0.5; and F, 0.49 and below. I think the grading here, at least for the moment, is too tough. Only 4 percent of U.S. public high schools, and probably a similarly small percentage of districts, achieve a rating of 1 or above on this scale. Most teachers I know give A's and B's to many more than 4 percent of their students. I would make 1 and above an A, 0.99 to 0.75 a B and reserve the F's for those districts that don't have AP, IB or similar courses.
5. Achievement Tests, measured by average reading and math scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or other standardized tests used to determine how local students look on a national scale. A is 75 percent; B is 74 to 65 percent; C, 64 to 55 percent; D, 54 to 45 percent; and F, 44 percent and below. This data has the advantage of being available in many states. Most of the tests have percentile results that are fairly comparable across the country.
6. Instructional Staff with Advanced Training, measured by the percentage of teachers who have a bachelor's degree plus 45 credit hours, or an advanced degree or a National Board Certification. A is 60 percent and above; B is 59 to 50 percent; C, 49 to 40 percent; D, 39 to 30 percent; and F, 29 percent and below. This is fine, although I wish we had a better measure of teacher quality than degree achievement. National Board Certification, a relatively new program that puts teachers through a battery of exercises and tests, may turn out to be that measure, but relatively few have done it yet.
7. Spending on Instructional Services, measured by the percentage of a district's operating budget spent on instruction. A is 65 percent and above; B is 64 to 63 percent; C, 62 to 61 percent; D, 60 to 59 percent; and F, 58 percent and below. I liked this one until I read of a new study that suggests getting your instructional spending up to 65 percent of your operating budget, which some states have already mandated in law, does not produce the kind of academic gains many had hoped for.
8. Foreign Language, measured by the percentage of seniors completing at least three years of one foreign language. A is 70 percent and above; B is 69 to 60 percent; C, 59 to 50 percent; D, 49 to 40 percent; and F, 39 percent and below. This is a measure for a global age. I like it.
9. College Placement, measured by the percentage of graduating seniors going to two-year or four-year colleges, multi-year professional training or the military. The grading system is the same as measure No. 1. Nearly everyone agrees that our children need more than just a high school education. This is a fine measure, although I hope someday we can calculate what percentage of each district's graduates have successfully achieved college degrees and other useful post-graduation goals.
10. Student Involvement, measured by the percentage of seniors with at least two years participation in at least one extracurricular activity or internship. The grading system is the same as measure No 1. I think this is very important, but almost no schools or school districts measure it. This might persuade them to start doing so.
There is more about the report card on the Park City Education Foundation Web site | www.pcep4kids.org . It will take a long time for such comparisons to be possible on a national scale, but within states, districts could compare themselves to each other with data that should not be too much trouble to acquire.
On most of these measures, affluent districts such as Park City have an advantage. On its own scale, it says it has achieved an overall average of B-plus already.
But some states, such as California, have found interesting ways to compare schools to other schools with similar demographic characteristics. That method might work with this report card.
Tell the Park City folks what you think of it. Copy your e-mail to me at email@example.com and I will do a follow-up column on how this unusual proposal is being received.