The highest-performing public schools in the District could soon boast they are city-approved, five-star campuses. And the lowest-performing schools could be stuck with just one or two stars.
The star system, expected to roll out in December, reflects a strategy to make school data more accessible to families and provide a uniform approach to assessing charter and traditional public schools.
Supporters of the plan say the five-star rankings will hold schools accountable while providing parents with a consistent and digestible way to measure hundreds of schools. But critics fear the ranking system’s reliance on test scores will reserve the highest accolades for schools that educate the city’s wealthiest students and give paltry ratings to schools that serve the District’s most vulnerable children — even if students are improving academically and socially on those campuses.
“It’s important to get this information into the hands of parents,” said D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, whose office is spearheading the efforts. “The reality is that the information that we are using for our star rankings, I think all of it, if not the vast majority of it, is currently publicly available, but it’s scattered in different places.”
The Obama administration’s 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act mandated that states and the District develop uniform and easily accessible report cards for schools by the end of 2018. State governments have the flexibility to determine how they will assess schools, but the federal law says that some data, including standardized-test scores and graduation rates, must be a significant part of the measurements.
The law says states must provide families with an easy way to compare schools, which is why many states have turned to simple rankings such as the star system.
Natasha Ushomirsky, director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, an advocacy organization, said some states are developing A-to-F ranking systems while others are turning to colors or numerical standings to denote the performance of schools.
In the District, standardized-test scores, and whether they are improving, account for the biggest chunk of elementary and middle school rankings — 70 percent. In high schools, test scores represent about 40 percent of the ranking. Five percent of the ranking considers whether schools effectively educate students from low-income families, and another 5 percent reflects schools’ success in teaching English-language learners.
Other states, according to Ushomirsky, give more weight to how effectively schools teach historically underserved populations.
She said she suspects that many states will have to reassess rating algorithms in a year.
“The goal of ratings should be to communicate whether they are serving all groups of students that they have in the building well,” Ushomirsky said. “A lot of systems fall short of that goal. That doesn’t mean we need to back away from the ratings — it means we have to improve the systems we have in place.”
In the District, the star rankings will also take into account attendance rates, chronic absenteeism, the percentage of students who re-enroll in a school, participation in Advanced Placement classes and performance on Advanced Placement exams.
Kang said her agency engaged with thousands of families to create the rankings. She conceded that the star ratings will not capture everything about a school. But the rankings will be one component of a larger report card families can access online or in printed copies. The report cards review teacher experience and retention, student discipline rates and a host of other factors.
Suzanne Wells, a parent of a District middle schooler, said she is skeptical that most parents will look beyond the star rankings as they search for a school.
Wells, who sat on a task force that provided input as the city developed the report cards, said she fears that struggling neighborhood schools — which have already lost many students to charter schools — will receive one or two stars, making it harder to recruit families.
“I worry that struggling schools are going to be left further and further behind,” Wells said.
More than 40 percent of students in the District are considered at risk — defined as those who are homeless, are recipients of welfare or food stamps, or have languished in high school. Those students are often concentrated in schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
At Turner Elementary in Southeast Washington, for example, more than 85 percent of the student body is considered at risk. But at Janney Elementary in Northwest, just 2 percent of students are at risk; the school posts some of the city’s highest test scores.
Cathy Reilly, executive director of Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, a local advocacy organization, said the star ranking system does not capture the reality that students enter schools with different abilities and challenges.
“It’s not a level playing field,” Reilly said. “How are the kids going to feel who are in a one-star school?”
Yolanda Corbett, a mother of three children enrolled in charter schools, sat on the parental task force that helped develop the school report cards and recognizes the assessments cover only certain attributes. Knowing that, she said she would be willing to send her children to a one-star school.
But she acknowledged that many parents will not know that and may refuse to send their children to low-ranking schools.
“Context is good,” Corbett said. “The next step will be to make sure that the city explains what the star rankings mean.”