What Do School Letter Grades Really Tell Us About School Quality?
Last month, the Louisiana Department of Education proposed a set of changes to the state’s K-12 education accountability system that would significantly increase school ratings not because student achievement improved, but by simply changing the weights and awarding more points within the calculations. Simulations provided by the department projected that more than 50% of D- and F-rated schools would increase an entire school letter grade, making it appear that schools are suddenly performing much better. The proposal will come up for consideration again when the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meets in August.
These discussions have prompted Pelican and some other groups to take a deeper look at Louisiana’s K-12 education accountability system, specifically the extent to which it accurately and transparently communicates information about school quality to parents who rely on it to make decisions in the best interest of their child.
While Louisiana’s school rating system has focused on outcomes and gradually raised expectations for student achievement over time, the system remains very lenient and complex compared to other states. The growth component of the formula rewards student performance on a relative measure (Did students at least do better than their peers?) instead of solely growth toward a standard of proficiency, which results in many schools earning points for meager student performance. Proposed changes would weight growth even more within the formula.
The system also continues to reward schools for students performing below proficiency across several indicators, leading to higher ratings and signaling to parents that schools and students are performing just as well as their peers across America. This just isn’t the case, given that most other states require students to perform at or above proficient levels in order to even graduate and earn recognition in the school rating system.
Current Louisiana regulations call for the state to begin transitioning to Mastery, which is indicative of proficiency, during the 2021-2022 school year, but proposed changes call for this transition to be delayed for two years. The current system also awards points to high schools for students performing two entire achievement levels below proficiency (Approaching Basic) on state assessments, and earning a 17 on the ACT which is far lower than what ACT deems indicative of college and career readiness. Proposed revisions call for the high school accountability formula to become even more lenient by awarding points for even lower performance on the assessment.
We must remember the purpose of school accountability — to transparently communicate school quality to parents and communities and to identify schools that are in need of interventions so that children can be better served. Labeling schools higher than they really are might make people feel better, but it masks students’ actual readiness for an increasingly demanding global economy. Having anything less than truth in advertising about school quality also doesn’t empower families with the information they need to choose the best school that fits their child. Louisiana can do better. Rather than making its school accountability system more lenient, we should be strengthening and simplifying it to empower families and to ultimately drive students toward success.