Redefining Quality: Working towards new measures of school achievement

An article published by claims 73% of home buyers consider the quality of a school when purchasing a home. Of that number, 78% are willing to sacrifice luxuries such as garages and backyards in order to purchase in an area with better schools.

Q: How is the quality of a school determined?

Taken from the Washington State OSPI website

A: Test scores.

If you were to visit any State Superintendent’s website and check the school report card the first and largest portion of it is dedicated to testing data.

When viewing the Washington State report card, testing data overshadows everything. Important data, such as graduation rates are allocated to a small corner clumped with Unexcused Absence Rate in a section titled “Other Measures.”  It is clear what the State values.

This information is public and is used by realtors to attract home buyers.

Potential home buyers can visit either or Zillow, pull up the specs of any house, and find the ratings of “Nearby Schools.” When clicking on this option they will see school ratings compiled by GreatSchools on a scale of 1-10. The only factor that GreatSchools uses to measure the quality of a school is standardized test scores. Look at the bottom of the section and you will read in fine print, “GreatSchools Ratings compare a school’s test performance to statewide results.”

Taken from School names were changed.

Potential home buyers are not the only ones who see this data, Voters are swayed by this information as well. Schools depend on local bonds and levies to help fund schools. Without this support, schools will fall further behind. School boards and administrators are quite aware of this and pressure students and teachers to increase testing performance.

An emphasis on testing as the indicator of a school’s quality causes educators to feel compelled to sacrifice authentic learning activities on the altar of accountability. I have heard teachers tell me that there are units and projects they cut out of their school year to ensure students are prepared to pass the State assessment.

In Washington, students take the Measurement of Student Progress (MSP) at grades 5 and 8. I know of a principal who, in order to encourage students to do their best, tells her students that the acronym MSP stands for “Mariners Score Perfect.” Is “Perfect” the goal? Is anyone who scores less than perfect, not a Mariner? What kind of message does this send children?

A system that emphasizes numbers and rank, there will be winners and losers. The “Good Schools” will be those with the higher test scores and the “Bad Schools” will be those with lower scores. As Alfie Kohn points out, “Standardized tests are extremely good measures of the size of the houses near a school. Study after study has found that you can predict as much as 90 percent of the differences in test scores without knowing a damn thing about what’s going on in the classrooms.” Since economics has a great impact on standardized test scores, should we really be using them as the primary indicator of quality? Is it ethical to further privilege more affluent schools at the expense of those low-income schools?

When we give preferential treatment to state testing as the measurement of quality we drive families away from their community school, which further damages the school.

No Child Left Behind “allows parents to choose other public schools… if their child attends a school that needs improvement. Also, parents can choose another public school if the school their child attends is unsafe.” This sounds nice on the surface, however, this mindset is actually destroying our community schools. Families are taking advantage of this, moving their child away from the community school and thus further stigmatizing “Bad Schools” and this flight from the local school is further decreasing their state test scores.

The beneficiaries of school choice are more often students of affluence and the benefits of school choice are not fully realized by students of poverty or students of color. Osamudia R. James points out that “choice also masks racial subordination in public education in the form of unreasonable educational alternatives, education policy problematically informed by cultural-deficit models, and negative-racialized schooling experiences. Moreover, school choice forces parents and caregivers of color to bear the burden of reform, thus shifting responsibility from the state to individuals when choice fails to improve educational outcomes.”

Schools are so much more than a number.

We can do better.

School excellence needs to be redefined. The quality of a school has a broader scope. How can a single moment in time communicate all the ways a school is challenging and impacting the lives of its students? We need to be using more qualitative data.

What if our school report cards were a bragging tool? What if the school report card allowed schools to share all the innovative work it is doing? How might it look?

A school’s report card could highlight a pottery program that sells student work for charity. It could boast of a collaboration between a choir instructor and a culinary teacher to host a catered event with entertainment. What about the social studies teacher who regularly takes her class to meet with local and State representatives to discuss current policy and civic duty? It could also include the auto shop that opens its doors to staff allowing kids real-world experience or that the school facilitates Challenge Day to break down barriers and create spaces where students can be honest and discuss personal struggles. These are all the things currently happening in my school. None of these show up on the State’s report. I’m sure your local school has similar programs that come to mind. Don’t these mean anything?

The purpose of schools is to provide students with an opportunity to explore and experience new and exciting opportunities. It challenges young people to become the best people they can. When we choose to equate quality with test scores, we ignore all the amazing things a school has to offer. And when we make test scores the goal, teachers, and administrators lose sight of what truly is important—the child.

As parents, teachers, administrators, community members, and alumni, should we expect more from reporting systems? How would new methods of reporting impact the perception of our schools and impact teaching and learning? Would this type of reporting encourage community members such as businesses, churches, and other programs to become more involved in our schools?

In redefining quality we give all schools a fighting chance. Instead of worrying about raising test scores, administrator and teachers can explore ways to engage students in content that connects them with their community. Schools will be able to connect with local businesses, community programs, and other organizations who are aware of local needs. Schools can build partnerships that allow students to engage in a meaningful curriculum that meets both the needs of the student and those of the community. Schools could be instruments of a robust, diverse community instead of a way to divide it and make it more homogeneous along racial and economic lines. When we redefine quality, all schools have the potential to be excellent on their own merit.

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