So is my kid’s school good or not?

The new round of Wisconsin school report cards are out and, if you are like me, you may be a bit confused. There are some mixed messages out there. So are our schools more or less meeting expectations? Are private schools accepting vouchers outperforming public schools? Are gains this year a statistical outlier? Is this whole thing silly? As I wrote last year, people tend to weaponize these report cards to support their views on education policy, but they are nonetheless important. A couple points worth making.

First, never forget these are human-designed accountability systems. Groups of humans are making decisions about what is measured, how it is measured, and how important each area is to the entire accountability system. Perhaps you have heard the cliché that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Well the report cards are a camel. Any attempt to take everything that occurs in a school and boil it down to a single number will be a flawed exercise. I urge parents and policymakers alike to review schools by looking at the detailed report card, not the simple overall score.

Second, DPI should be commended for their work on this. It is awesome to see how much data is available on Wisconsin schools compared to when I began working in this area a dozen years ago. This is a difficult bureaucratic exercise (especially when we constantly change the report card), yet DPI pulled it off.

Third, this is the second year of the new accountability formula. Two years does not make a trend, so if your child’s school made improvements or scored lower, do not rush to judgment.

Fourth, it is great to see more demographic data available for private schools in choice programs. We are getting closer to the day where data systems are aligned between public and voucher schools, which is a huge development that will help us better understand the choice sector. That said, keep in mind that private schools have two sets of report cards; one optional for all students, and one required only of voucher students. Also keep in mind that the Milwaukee, Racine, and statewide voucher programs are different animals with different regulations and characteristics. Finally, keep in mind that Milwaukee’s education challenges will not be solved by simply concluding one sector is better than another. That is a flawed premise in my opinion (hey, buy my book to learn more!).

Now the nitty gritty, what is going on with Emmeline Cook, my sons’ school? Last year the school met few expectations with a total score of 54.3. This year the school meets expectations with a 66.9. What gives? Perhaps my parenting skills simply vaulted the school now that my oldest is in a tested grade. I joke of course. A closer look reveals what changed:

  • In 2015-2016 the school had very low growth scores in math, and extremely low gap-closing scores in English and math. These low scores were driven by low scores in the sub-categories of low-income, and ELL students.
  • This year the school’s math growth scores, and English and math gap closing scores increased considerably. If you look a bit closer you see the value-added growth for low-income pupils improved considerably, as did the math achievement scores for low-income pupils.
  • I also note the percentage of ELL students in the school decreased by about 4 percentage points. This cohort was struggling according to last year’s report card, so this demographic change had the likely impact of increasing growth scores, particularly in math.

To put it all together, the increased accountability score is a function of 1) Improved math growth scores for low-income pupils, 2) Improved gap-closing in math and English for low-income pupils, and 3) A reduction in the total number of ELL pupils.

So back to my original question, is my kid’s school good or not? Well, I do not think the accountability score in this report card can tell me that. But it does contain good information that helps parents, policymakers, and school leaders better understand what is working and what needs improvement, and for whom. Data like theses should be a tool, and a valuable opportunity to better understand what is going on in your child’s school.

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