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KY's new school accountability system isn't perfect, but it's a major step forward

Today the Kentucky Department of Education released school performance data for the 2018-2019 year, the first year of implementation for our new accountability system, and the first using a new 5-star ratings framework. The new system has generated various reactions, including some negative comments from educators about the 5-star method of rating schools.

Some have worried that people will make superficial judgments about a school's quality based on its star rating. Others have pointed out that high-poverty schools are more likely to be rated lower than schools with students from more affluent families. Still others have complained that yet another change to the accountability system amounts to once again "moving the goalposts" for teachers.

While there is merit to all of these concerns, I believe the new accountability system is a major step forward for Kentucky and provides useful information to help educators, parents, and local communities support every school in celebrating its accomplishments and focusing on its improvement areas.

A good accountability system should do two things: it should convey information about a school's overall performance while at the same time offering details about the specific areas in which schools are both excelling and struggling. These are not mutually exclusive goals, and I believe the new accountability model represents a vastly improved balance over the previous system.

I had the opportunity to serve on the Standards Setting Committee that developed definitions for each of the 5 star performance levels and set parameters for how schools would be identified. That experience gave me a close look at both the strengths and limitations of the new accountability system, which I would like to explore below. As always let me make it clear that my opinions are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone else affiliated with Western Kentucky University (where I am professor of education administration, leadership, and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I am a member and chair of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Committee).

Overall Ratings are Important

In the broader economy, we use star ratings to evaluate the quality of restaurants and hotels, but some have argued that such an approach is inappropriate for schools, where so many input variables impact a variety of student outcome measures that are hidden by the overall rating.

Of course it is true that some people may fail to look beyond the overall star rating. I explored this issue at some length in a recent post.

Some will make superficial judgments about schools based on their rating and fail to explore the rich array of additional data contained in the school report card that better illustrates what each school is doing well and where each school needs to improve, regardless of rating. But that's not a reason not to summarize a school's overall performance; rather it's the reason why educators need to take the lead in accepting the value of an overall rating and then inviting stakeholders into a thoughtful, local conversation about what the rating means and how the community can support the school's improvement efforts.

The comments I've seen on social media suggest that some people don't believe schools should be rated at all. But I thoroughly reject this point of view. For one thing, federal law requires states to report school performance to the public in ways that distinguish between those with higher and lower levels of student achievement.

I believe that's a good thing. Parents, the public, and educators need a way to understand at a glance how each school is performing overall.

Kentucky, like most states, has been rating schools in this way for nearly 30 years, and of course there are serious limitations to any label. Under the previous accountability system, labels like "Distinguished," "Proficient," and "Needs Improvement" also failed to convey many of the details of a school's performance. Nevertheless, there is something qualitatively different between a school that is Proficient versus one that Needs Improvement, and that's a distinction that is important for the public to know.

The new star ratings, which include 1 to 5 stars, feature more gradations of performance among schools than the previous accountability system, and that's a good thing. Having more stars means it's easier for schools to track gradual improvements in overall student learning over time. The star rating does this without utilizing an A-F grading system like many other states use, which comes with an even more judgmental set of associations, than stars.

The point is not that a 1-star school is "failing," as an "F" grade would seem to communicate. Rather, 1 star better conveys that the school is in critical need for improvement. That's what educators and the public need to know, and that's where their focus and efforts should be immediately directed. 

Poverty is not Destiny

Some critics have noted that there is probably a direct correlation between star ratings and student poverty, since there is a clear association between family income and student achievement. This is also true. Schools with high levels of student family income are much more likely to be rated at 4 or 5 stars, while schools with high poverty are more likely to receive a lower star rating.

But we should not lower our expectations for students from low-income families. Poverty is not destiny, especially in education. There is significant variation in school performance among schools that serve high percentages of students in poverty. And as a recent report by the University of Kentucky and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence illustrates, there are schools that are beating the odds. These "bright spots" included 12 districts that are outperforming their demographically similar peers. One highlighted district from my part of the state was the Monroe County Schools, which this year has two 5-star elementary schools (among only 37 five star elementary schools in the state), despite serving 74% and 78% low-income students respectively.

Granted, these are small, rural, ethnically homogeneous schools. But they are outperforming other similar, high-poverty districts by a significant margin, proving that schools can, in fact, make a difference and post high-levels of student learning.

Growth Indicator Gives High-Poverty Schools a Better Way to Demonstrate Performance

While Kentucky's new accountability model provides a better tool for communicating overall school performance, it also represents an improvement in the way we measure the many indicators that make up that overall rating. 

For example, I believe the new accountability system gives schools the opportunity to demonstrate the progress they are making with students, even when those students start with disadvantages. This is why it's so important for parents, educators, and the public to dig deeply into the individual indicators that make up the star ratings. Those indicators can actually cause schools with high levels of poverty to get higher overall ratings, if they are doing a good job with the students they serve. 

This is because, among other significant improvements, the new accountability system uses a simpler way of tracking student growth (how much the student's performance in reading and math has grown over the year) and weighs this factor much more heavily in the school's overall rating (35% of overall performance for elementary and middle school).

After reviewing scores of school report cards, I have found numerous examples of schools (many of them high poverty), where the overall rating was a full star higher simply because of student growth. Schools that would have been 1 star or 2 stars based on student proficiency, are instead rated 2 or 3 stars. This is as it should be, since to me one of the best indicators of a school's quality is how far it can move students over a year, even if those students don't all reach proficiency (still an important goal of course; see more on the various indicators that make up overall ratings here).

There isn't a growth component for high schools yet, and to me that's a real limitation of the accountability system. But Kentucky is also in the process of developing new assessments for high school so that we won't have to rely on the ACT for accountability purposes, and this may create a new opportunity to measure growth (how students progress from middle to high school).

In the meantime, it's worth celebrating that for high schools, accountability isn't simply measured by standardized test score performance. Transition readiness (a measure of how well-prepared students are for life after graduation), accounts for 30% of high schools' overall performance rating, and there are multiple ways for students to demonstrate that they are transition ready, including earning industry certifications, completing dual credit courses, or meeting college admissions benchmarks. This flexibility gives students multiple pathways to transition readiness while maintaining high expectations for all and holding schools accountable for those results.

Achievement Gaps get Highlighted

Another way that the accountability system has improved, in my opinion, is that achievement gaps are no longer factored directly into a school's overall rating, which, to me, always seemed to double-count students with poor proficiency who also happened to be in a gap group. But significant achievement gaps are now highlighted directly on the school report card main page, making these issues even more prominently displayed.

Furthermore, schools at the 4 and 5-star levels are lowered a star if they have significant achievement gaps, and this is noted prominently so that visitors to the school report card can see what the school's overall performance would have been otherwise, but the presence of the gap is also spotlighted so the community can be aware and support the school's improvement efforts. This seems right to me, in that under the old accountability system, schools could be labeled "Distinguished" even though they had glaring achievement gaps.

Of course gap closure isn't easy. I have heard legitimate concerns expressed by high school principals about the pressure they feel to get recently-arrived English Language Learners proficient and transition ready in just a few years, or from principals in general about the challenges of helping students with disabilities reach proficiency.

But I believe parents and the public understand these gaps are hard to close; under-emphasizing these gaps or hiding them inside strong overall school performance doesn't help schools find ways to better serve these vulnerable populations, and so here again I find the new accountability system a good compromise.

Limitations: Accountability Can't Do Everything

There are real limitations to the accountability system, of course. After extensive discussions about how the system could also provide information on more of the inputs to a high quality education, like arts programs, for example, the Department has had to temporarily abandon these "opportunity and access" elements because we've yet to figure out a way to measure them in a valid and reliable way. The same goes for many of the social-emotional goals and components of learning, or the kinds of "soft skills" that have been an increasing focus for the education system.

It doesn't mean that these inputs and outcomes aren't valued; only that no accountability system can adequately reflect the contributions made by every one of the various inputs in student learning, or capture every goal we are seeking to accomplish through the education system.

I believe this is okay. As I wrote here and here, the education accountability system does many important things, but it can't be expected to do everything, or, by itself, make schools better.

The accountability system is just a mechanism of information, especially in this post-No Child Left Behind era. As I argued recently, there are no consequences whatsoever for schools' star ratings under the new accountability system. It is purely information for local communities to use in support of their schools. That support has to also include a concern for non-tested areas like the arts, and for ensuring resources are allocated in equitable ways for all students.

"Moving the Goalposts" for Good Reasons

I am perhaps most sympathetic to the complaint that a new system means that we've "moved the goal posts" again, and educators would sure appreciate some long-term consistency in our accountability model. I fully share this frustration, but I also think we've moved the goal posts for good reasons, and in ways that ultimately improve the kinds of information we are delivering back to educators and the public about school performance.

The primary reason Kentucky's system has changed is because of updates in federal education law, which in general has been a good thing, giving states far more flexibility in how they design their accountability frameworks.

The blend of proficiency, growth, and other indicators provides a richer set of measures reflecting what's really happening in schools. And as I noted above, having more performance levels makes it easier to for schools to show progress over time. 

In conclusion, whatever its limitations, I'm excited about Kentucky's new accountability system and am eager to see how educators embrace this information.

So, of course, let's take a look at each school's star rating, because it tells us something important. But then let's dive directly into the textured data that can be found within the school report card and find out more about what each school is doing well, and where it needs help. On the report card, just above the star rating, click "View Accountability Data" to see how the school did on all indicators, and from the Indicators page, click "Explore Data" to examine finer grain results, including how individual student groups performed.

As always, reach out to me with thoughts, concerns, and suggestions for how we can continue to make the accountability system better.

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