Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this post incorrectly said the school accountability plan was developed by the D.C. Public Schools. This version has been updated.
D.C.’s recently approved plan to hold schools accountable for strong student outcomes fails to meet the educational needs of high achievers — especially those growing up in poverty.
The proposal, developed as part of the city’s obligations under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, suffers from the legacy of its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. That law created incentives for schools to focus their energy almost exclusively on helping low-performing students get over a modest proficiency bar while neglecting those who were likely to pass the English language arts and math tests regardless of what happened in the classroom.
A strong accountability system signals to schools that the progress of all students is important. And a number of elements of D.C.’s proposed plan do this, including its annual school grades, its commitment to student growth and the credit it gives schools whose students successfully earn college credit before they graduate, via programs such as Advanced Placement. But it’s not enough. Here’s how it could be fixed.
First, when calculating school grades, make growth of individual students from one year to the next count for at least 50 percent. Growth measures do a far better job of capturing schools’ effects on children’s academic achievement than proficiency rates, which are strongly correlated with demographics, family circumstance and prior achievement. To its credit, D.C. recognizes the importance of growth. But the draft plan doesn’t go far enough in making this a primary component of schools’ ratings; growth for all students only counts for 20 percent of summative grades in kindergarten through eight and isn’t used for high schools at all. If policymakers in Washington don’t increase this to at least 50 percent for all schools, many will continue to be misjudged by policymakers and the public.
Second, for the academic achievement indicator, give schools additional credit for getting more students to Level 5 (“exceeding expectations”) on the PARCC assessment, instead of exclusively rewarding schools for students who merely reach proficiency (i.e., “meet expectation“). As dozens of scholars and policy analysts explained in a letter submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in July, proficiency rates are poor measures of school quality. Other measures — such as performance indices and average scale scores — would meet ESSA’s mandate without encouraging schools to focus narrowly on students performing near the proficiency line (something that is particularly pernicious for high-achieving poor and minority children). For example, D.C. could create an achievement index that gives schools partial credit for getting students to PARCC’s Level 3 (“approaching expectations”), full credit for Level 4 and additional credit for getting students to Level 5. More than a dozen states already use such an index.
Finally, D.C. ought to further signal that high achievers matter by making them a visible, trackable “subgroup,” akin to special education students or English language learners, and by publishing school ratings based on their progress. The city could define this group as every student who reaches PARCC’s Level 5 and then report their growth in each and every school. D.C. already has the tools required to compile such data, and making it public would give parents and policymakers more information so they can make better decisions.
D.C.’s proposed school accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act doesn’t do nearly enough for high achievers, especially those growing up in poverty, who need all of the attention they can get. For too long they’ve been an afterthought, a fate no child should suffer. The three changes proposed above would signal that D.C. is committed to providing these students with the education they deserve.
Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon L. Wright are president and editorial director, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.