Thoughts on the New Accountability Report Cards

We need accountability. We need simple school report cards. We need report cards that measure student growth. We need report cards that account for poverty. The report cards are letting the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) off the hook. The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is rigging the report cards. Hooray, the report cards show these charter schools are doing great. Boo, this report card shows my child’s school is meeting few expectations. We need real accountability.

I have heard so many conflicting claims about the report card that I recommend everyone read DPI’s Frequently Asked Questions sheet, available online at: http://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/accountability/pdf/Report%20Card%20FAQ%202016_Web.pdf. Below is my quick synopsis of the noise surrounding the release of DPI’s latest round of school and district report cards.

We need accountability says everyone. I agree. The problem is not everyone agrees on what accountability means. It is worth checking out the list of DPI’s accountability design team to give you an idea of who had a seat at the table. I urge policymakers and policy leaders to articulate exactly what accountability means to themselves and their stakeholders. (I myself proposed a consumer-based model here if you are interested). The diverse accountability opinions held by those influencing accountability policy in Wisconsin ensure we will continue to have a report card that is somewhat clumsy and controversial.

We need simple school report cards say those who want grades rather than stars. Ok. I get the desire for simplicity, but it is simply impossible to create a single simple indicator that paints a complete picture of school quality. Perhaps it is my background working in a highly competitive choice environment, but I think we often underestimate parents’ abilities to evaluate schools. I’d prefer a report card that is comprehensive rather than simple.

We need report cards that measure student growth says everyone when it is convenient. Perhaps I am a bit jaded here. I have long-argued that a valid measure of school quality requires an indicator of what happens to a student once they enter a school. Though current achievement levels are important for evaluating students and the entire system, it is illogical to evaluate a school without considering the students they receive. The new report card wisely considers growth in conjunction with poverty. I was honestly surprised to see some of the negative reaction to this change.

We need report cards that account for poverty…see above. I think this is a no-brainer, but not all agree.

The report cards are letting the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) off the hook. This I disagree with. Achievement levels in Milwaukee remain too low. And no, MPS did not suddenly improve by a large amount between report cards. But if accounting for poverty and student growth is a policy goal, why be upset that MPS looks better when student growth and poverty are considered? Some of the reaction makes me worried that the policy goal for some is not an accurate agreed-upon measure of accountability, but a measure that validates pre-determined conclusions.

The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is rigging the report cards say the DPI skeptics. Until someone can actually demonstrate that the process, over which many diverse stakeholders held influence, was somehow subverted, this claim lacks credibility. People are certainly free to make the case for changes at DPI, or be critical of DPI leadership, but this specific claim does not hold water for me.

Hooray, the report cards show these charter schools are doing great writes Alan Borsuk. Who can disagree with this one? High-performing schools in Milwaukee are a cause for celebration. And note that Milwaukee College Prep is chartered by MPS.

Boo, this report card shows my child’s school is meeting few expectations. Yep, my child’s school got dinged, which is causing some heartburn in the community. But it is an example of where a single indicator fails to tell the whole story. The school is considered high-poverty (62.5%) and a deeper look shows the overall score is a function of high achievement gaps between low- and middle/high-income students. It is also a K-5 school where students are tested in only three grades, and there is little time to actually close achievement gaps. These are not excuses, but part of the story that cannot be learned from just looking at a single score.

I also note that some parents are concerned that our overall score is going down, but we are all wise to remember “that some score differences between the 2015-16 report card and prior years may be due to calculation changes in the Accountability Index and not due to an actual change in student performance.” The confusion resulting from constantly changing tests and methodologies is why I generally feel having imperfect stable indicators is more important than searching for the next perfect indicator of public performance.

We need real accountability. Yes we do. Though my conclusion on this front drives some of my reform friends nuts, I am a huge fan of democratic accountability via school boards. Democratic governance provides a forum where the diversity of opinions on topics such as accountability can be hashed out among officials representing the residents of their community. It does not always work well, but there is great potential there.

My overall take on the new report cards? It is good we have them. The more information we have about our schools, the better-positioned parents, teachers, schools, and districts are to make impactful decisions.

 

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