Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Good Is Your Local School?

How good is your local school? Don't expect to find out from the Texas Education Agency's (TEA) accountability ratings, due out this week. You know, the ratings that say your kids' school is "Exemplary" or "Recognized" or "Acceptable." Why not? Thomas Ratliff, a member of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), explains why ... after the jump.

Ratliff's spells out his problem with the TEA's accountability ratings in an op/ed on The Dallas Morning News's Education blog:

"[T]hese rankings only tell the public how the lowest performing sub-group is doing. Yes, you read that right, the lowest. What are the subgroups? Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Economically Disadvantaged and Special Needs students are the sub-groups TEA tracks. ... The analogy I like to use is a high school track team. If the whole track team ran races every month of the year and at the end of the year EVERY team member received the worst time of the slowest runner, THAT'S our accountability rating system."

Ratliff has it right. The metric is inspired by the goal of "No Child Left Behind." But it isn't even good at measuring that. To extend Ratliff's analogy, the gap between the fastest runner and the slowest runner might actually be widening even as the slowest runner individually improves his or her time. That's because the metric doesn't measure how far out ahead the leaders are getting. It measures whether the laggards are meeting some minimally acceptable performance standard, not whether the gap between them and the leaders is shrinking. The leaders might be disappearing farther and farther in the distance.

Likewise, the accountability ratings tell us nothing about how the best students are doing or how the average student is doing, only how well the most struggling students are doing. Not that this isn't an important measure. It is. But it tells us very little about how well the school provides for everyone else, which is also important.

So, Ratliff understands the measure and its limitations. Where I disagree with Ratliff is on his implied solution. Ratliff says, "It's time to tell Austin and Washington that we want our local schools back!" There are other strong arguments for getting Austin to respect local school boards more. But this isn't one of them. Ratliff doesn't explain why we'll get a better measure of school performance if the hundreds of local school districts are left to decide themselves what to measure and how to report it. There's no hope of comparison in that system. If the current measure is incomplete (and it is), then the proper solution is not to eliminate it or turn it over to the local school districts, but to include in it more of the things we care about.

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