Under a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the District and states can limit how much schools are rated on high-stakes testing. Instead, new rating systems can encourage schools to focus on providing a more well-rounded educational program — rich in social studies, science and the arts — and a school climate/culture that is welcoming, challenging and safe. These are the kinds of school improvements that can inspire students and prepare them to succeed in college and the workforce.
Unfortunately, the new rating system proposed for the District, which the D.C. State Board of Education will vote on this Wednesday, barely introduces such measures into the new school ratings. The new rating system, proposed by D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, looks much like the old NCLB plan. Instead of basing the entire rating on reading and math test scores, the proposed plan bases virtually the entire rating on these test scores, plus student attendance and reenrollment rates. Except for 5 percent of the rating (which kicks in in three years), no part of the rating is based on whether a school provides students with broad curricular opportunities or an engaging school environment.
Further, high schools will get no credit for achievement “growth”; their test scores will be calculated based only on the number of students who reach “proficiency.” As Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) pointed out at the confirmation hearings for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: Whether students reach “proficiency” at the end of a school year is hugely determined by everything that they learned or didn’t learn in all their prior years, not mainly on their learning that school year.
The deep inequities in our city almost guarantee that students will start at various levels of proficiency. How well each school supports every student in growth, no matter where that student starts, is what’s important to parents and families — and it’s the accurate, fair way to judge school quality. In other words, what we believe matters most in evaluating a school is the “growth” made by its students.
(The final plan promises to “explore” options for measuring high school growth and to bring a “proposal” on it to the State Board of Education by the end of the 2018-19 school year. Depending on lead time to implement the proposal, high schools could be rated into the next decade with barely any regard to how much and how well students actually learn!)
The outpouring of public comment on the plan (and previous versions of it) has been overwhelmingly negative. Parents, school staff, residents and community advocates from across the District have pleaded for changes that would give greater weight to student growth and give substantial weight to whether schools provide a well-rounded education and a healthy school environment — qualities that contribute to improved outcomes and academic achievement and are especially important for students in our most underserved communities.
The message is clear: We need to measure what matters. Because what gets measured gets taught. If the appropriate measures don’t exist, let’s develop them, as quickly as possible, with knowledgeable input from stakeholders and the public. The three of us cannot support a proposal that lacks a clear road map for developing them — a process with clear, urgent timelines, public engagement and specific goals.
The State Board of Education, on which the three of us sit, recommended convening task forces to identify how to measure high school growth and to develop and put in place within two years indicators of a well-rounded education and school climate (including strong consideration of a research-based “climate” survey that measures student/parent/ teachers’ sense that the school is welcoming, engaging and safe) with each counting for at least 10 percent of the rating. That’s the kind of roadmap that must be in the plan.
We have a golden opportunity to hold every school in our city — traditional public and public charter — accountable for the things we believe are going to give every student in the District, no matter his or her Zip code, the best chance at success. For the sake of our students, this plan can and must do better and go further. Let’s get back to work, together, to get accountability right.
Markus Batchelor (Ward 8), Ruth Wattenberg (Ward 3) and Joe Weedon (Ward 6) are members of the D.C. State Board of Education.