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Star power: More than half of Maryland schools get highest ratings in new system


More than half of Maryland schools received the highest ratings — four or five stars — under a new system for tracking school performance rolled out Tuesday.

Maryland officials held up the ranking system and a data-filled “report card” on each school as major steps in transparency, saying the public could access more detail than ever on measures of success at the state’s 1,400 public schools.

“It’s the first time we have had the ability to provide such a complete picture of school and school system performance to both educators and parents,” said Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools.

Schools in the D.C. suburbs fared well under the new system. More than three-quarters of schools in Montgomery County, with the state’s largest system, scored a 4 or a 5.

In neighboring Prince George’s the second-largest system in Maryland — 44 percent of schools earned the highest marks of four or five stars, and another 44 percent drew three stars.

Relatively few schools were given single-star ratings, with most in struggling areas of Baltimore.

States across the country and the District of Columbia are adopting similar accountability systems, required under federal law, with some using stars while others have letter grades or numerical scores.

Can schools be fairly ranked on a five-star system? D.C. is about to try.

Maryland schools get one to five stars after they are evaluated according to a formula that includes test scores, year-to-year progress, curriculum, absenteeism, gains in proficiency among English language learners and other factors.

State officials said they intended to make their system rich with numbers and easy to access so the public could see how a school in one community compared to a school elsewhere. They said that the system would identify areas for improvement and that struggling high-poverty schools would get more state assistance.

“It provides an unprecedented level of detail and transparency about how every school in Maryland is doing,” said Justin Hartings, president of the Maryland State Board of Education. “One can certainly just look at the star rating and draw some conclusions from that, but my hope is that people will look at all the other detail.”

The goal is not to stigmatize schools that might receive one star, he said, but to collect in one place data on many facets of school performance, so that parents and educators have more access to data on how their schools are doing.

“This is really a new way of thinking about school accountability in Maryland,” he said.

The system was developed over the past two years, as state officials sought to comply with requirements in state and federal laws. Parents, teachers, superintendents, students and advocates were involved.

But varying views emerged on scoring and approach.

“It’s the result of a set of compromises and as such no one is going to be perfectly happy,” said David Steiner, a state board member.

This is how the formula works: Schools with 75 percent or more of the possible points were awarded five stars, and cutoffs were 60 percent for four stars, 45 percent for three stars, 30 percent for two stars and less than 30 percent for one star.

Some critics described the star rankings as too simplistic and warned that they could unfairly brand struggling schools, rather than help them improve.

“Ratings don’t turn around schools,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It’s the educators, parents and local communities who do that.”

Bost expressed concern that the star system was “a quick, gimmicky way to look at accountability” and said the union had not supported it. “It gives a very cursory look at something that is very complex,” she said.

Prince George’s County touted its results, saying more than 80 percent of schools received a rating of three, four or five stars.

“The state’s new accountability system provides a snapshot of how schools help students achieve success in the classroom and beyond. We will use it as a tool to strengthen teaching and learning,” Monica Goldson, interim chief executive of the Prince George’s system, said in a statement.

In Montgomery, officials described the state’s rating system as limited and said they would create school-by-school profiles, called “equity accountability reports,” beginning in January.

Montgomery’s effort will go beyond state test scores to include student grades and results on districtwide exams. It will also take a more detailed approach to data on achievement among black and Hispanic students and those in poverty, officials said.

They said that while the state system allows comparisons from one district to the next, it is less valuable for understanding individual school performance.

“It’s not enough to really look at our very diverse, very large system,” Superintendent Jack Smith told reporters at a recent briefing.

Schools spokesman Derek Turner said the district was pleased that more than 75 percent of schools earned four- or five-star ratings but that more needs to be done to ensure all students are learning.

“It’s good news, but we want to look deeper,” he said.

State officials welcomed additional analysis.

“To the extent that Montgomery County or any other district in the state wants to provide any additional information, I don’t see it as a threat or a criticism. I see it as a great addition to the baseline the state is already providing,” said Hartings, the state board of education president.

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in D.C., called the changes in Maryland and other states “a step forward for transparency” but said the details of each approach matter, and he worries that Maryland’s system reflects demographic differences in student populations too strongly.

“It is hard for rich schools to do poorly and for poor schools to do well,” he said. “That’s a problem.”