In the schools game, everyone wants to know which are the good ones. Good schools stabilize communities, keep property values desirable and, most important to parents, help set children on their way in life.
So how do you measure schools? How can you judge which are the good ones, which are living on old reputations? Which are struggling and making improvements and which are in disrepair?
For years, test scores have been the sole factor used, playing a powerful role in defining perceptions, even as parents, teachers and students complained that tests simply couldn't tell the whole story.
That's what new Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is trying to capture: the truer story of a school. His first attempt last fall--widely distributing a "productivity map"--was a flop, creating more confusion and consternation than clarity.
In his latest attempt, outlined in his "Call to Action" plan, Weast wants to use four means to judge a school. Test scores, the old standard, are certainly one measure. The controversial "productivity map," or how much a student or a class improves from one year to the next, is another.
But Weast also wants to capture the intangible: school climate. And, true to his oft-stated mission, he wants an "equity" standard, so each school must measure how well they are closing the academic achievement gap between white and Asian students and their generally lower-scoring African American and Hispanic peers.
That doesn't mean pulling the high scorers down. "A school can't get credit for closing the gap if the top group declines in their achievement," said Kimberly Statham, one of six newly appointed community superintendents for the school system. She is leading a work group devising the accountability standards.
Next month, the group will report to Weast and the school board on its first recommendations. The work, many panel members said, is not easy, and the implications are far reaching.
"If the standard is set too high, it's entirely possible that none of our schools would meet it. If it's set too low, and every student meets the standard, then the perception is we're not really seeking educational excellence," said school board member Mona M. Signer (Rockville-Potomac), who is also on the accountability work group. "Where we set the standard has an awful lot of impact on how we're perceived and how we perceive ourselves."
Further, the accountability system will be used to measure a school's performance and determine when proposed "performance teams" should be sent to troubled schools and what they need to work on. The system also will become part of how teachers and principals are evaluated, and decisions about when they, too, either need help or need to go.
"The goal is to have a consistent measure of school performance," Statham said. "We're making sure we reach for performance excellence and at the same time identify problems so we can make better decisions about where to apply resources."
And that, Signer said, is the biggest change. "Right now, we publish the data," she said, "but we don't do much more than that with it."
When it comes to elementary and middle schools, the group generally agrees that the county Criterion-Referenced Tests and new national tests will form the backbone of the accountability standard.
Although elusive, school climate may be measured by attendance rates and proposed staff surveys, members said.
But the group is struggling with how to rate high schools. College-entrance SAT scores listed in the annual "Schools at a Glance" book have been the key to ranking schools. Now, the work group wants to include more factors, including upcoming state assessment tests and possible countywide final exams. Signer is proposing that such county exams be given in every subject.
A key discussion has revolved around using the state's definition of a "rigorous" education. To meet that standard, seniors must meet four of six program indicators, including two or more credits in foreign language with a grade of B or better, four credits of science with a grade of B or better and a score of 1,000 or higher on SAT-1 or 20 or higher on ACT, or both.
What has astounded some members is that, according to the latest data, at the highest-ranked school in the county, Churchill, 58.2 percent of the seniors in 1997-98 met the criteria. At the lowest-ranked school, Kennedy, only 16.5 percent of the seniors met the standard.
"I think it's important to know how many of our children are meeting what I consider a fairly low standard," said Linna Barnes, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs and a member of the work group. "The issue then becomes, how do you set an acceptable level? If you were at 16 percent, are you working to get to 24 percent? It's important that we use not just the standard but whether improvements are being made."
Some teachers are concerned that including a standard for a certain grade-point average will only lead to grade inflation, which, some said, is already a problem. Others fear that the standards place too much emphasis on hard-core academics, which are important, at the expense of art and music.
Carol Jarvis, an art teacher at Pyle Middle School who is a member of the work group, said teachers are most concerned that an accountability standard not be so rigid as to forget the reality of the classroom: that some children are motivated high-flyers and others are newly arrived to the country and struggling with the alphabet. For her, truly effective schools have vigorous leaders and caring atmospheres. "How do you put a defining number on that?" she asked.
Barnes also wonders if standards can be broad enough to capture the increasing diversity of the county's schools.
That, school officials say, is the challenge, as well as the whole point.
"The beauty behind the accountability model is that it forces us to take a broader view of our schools," Statham said. "To compare ourselves not only on a county level, but on the state level and nationwide."
Measuring Rigorous Education
A Montgomery County work group is considering using the state's definition of a rigorous education to rate county schools. Here's how they rank now.
The state defines a "rigorous" education as including four of the following six school program indicators:
1. Two or more credits in foreign language with a grade of B or better.
2. Two or more credits of approved advanced technology with a grade of B or better.
3. Mathematics courses beyond Algebra II and geometry with a grade of B or better.
4. Four credits of science with a grade of B or better.
5. Score of 1,000 or higher on SAT-1 or 20 or higher on ACT or both.
6. A cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher on a 4.0 scale.
Percent of 1997-1998 Montgomery County high school seniors who met four of the six indicators:
Walt Whitman 55.1
Thomas S. Wootton 54.1
Richard Montgomery 52.3
Walter Johnson 51.2
Bethesda-Chevy Chase 43.1
Quince Orchard 42.7
Montgomery Blair 38.1
Paint Branch 32.8
Watkins Mill 32.2
Seneca Valley 24.4
1999 Graduating seniors who met four of the six indicators:
State average: 21.1%
Montgomery County: 38.8
Howard County: 39.1
Kent County: 27.4
SOURCE: Montgomery County Public Schools (Latest figures available)