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New System Will Soon Rate Kentucky Schools From 1 To 5 Stars

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The day report cards go home in backpacks is an important moment for students, who will show their families just how well things are going at school. But in an era of school accountability, students aren’t the only ones who receive grades. The Kentucky Department of Education will soon release its annual report cards that score individual public schools. And this year’s school report cards will include a new feature — a final grade.

Well, it’s not exactly a grade, like in neighboring Indiana where schools get an A to F score just like their students. In Kentucky, schools will receive one to five stars. Kentucky Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis said this will improve the state’s school report cards, which in the past have offered lots of data about schools, but no final score.

“The idea of having five stars for rating schools is first and foremost about transparency,” Lewis said.

Many states have been rating schools this way for years. In Indiana, schools have received letter grades since 2011, and the state has revised the criteria for those grades over time.

Kentucky is designing its star system right now. The Kentucky Department of Education has brought together a committee of superintendents and principals and state board of education members to define what those stars mean and minimum scores for each. The criteria that determine a school’s score is based on Kentucky’s accountability standards, outlined in Kentucky’s 2017 law originally known as Senate Bill 1.

The minimum scores will then go to Commissioner Lewis for approval.

“There’s no draft, you know, in the back room that we’re waiting to pull out, regardless of what they say,” Lewis said, anticipating any criticism that the committee might work in name only.

Advocates: Stars Provide The ‘So What’ On Report Cards

While the star system will be new in Kentucky this fall, school report cards are not. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act passed under the Obama Administration requires state departments of education to publish a variety of data about schools — from test performance to demographics to school spending. The law also requires states to rate schools in a way that helps identify the lowest-performing schools so they can receive targeted support. But states aren’t required to award schools a final score that interprets all those data points.

“It’s really hard to help a school improve when you don’t know where it stands today,” said Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign. The non-partisan nonprofit advocates for transparent education data. 

Kowalski says the stars or grades may be just one data point, “but it’s one that helps us put together many pieces of data points into something bigger.” 

“We want the ‘so what.’” 

The Data Quality Campaign looked at the public school report cards in every state and found that about half publish a summative rating for schools, like an A to F grade. Kowalski said the nonprofit also surveyed parents about those ratings.

“Nine in ten parents report that summative ratings help them make decisions about their child’s education,” Kowalski said.

Those decisions may include where to live, or whether to send their child to a private school. In Jefferson County, parents might use the information to decide which public schools to seek, since the district offers families a level of choice. And as Kowalski says, data is something we’ve all come to expect when making choices, “whether we’re looking at movie reviews or the health rating that the state health department gives to a restaurant when we walk in.”

Skeptics: Schools Are More Than Just A 5 Star Rating

While data transparency advocates may argue that granting schools an overall grade helps decipher meaning from a mess of data, others contend that schools are too dynamic to reduce to a five star rating.

“Schools can’t really be easily classified just like a Yelp review,” said JCPS school board member Chris Brady. 

He’s skeptical that these ratings can really capture the quality of a school.

“Schools have many different complex moving parts,” Brady said. “There’s a lot that goes into a school, and not everything is evaluated or really assessed.”

Brady says those missing parts could include a school’s climate and culture, teachers’ attitudes, and things that don’t get tested like arts education. He argues that test scores can hide the fact that schools aren’t all on a level playing field. 

“Some schools have high concentrations of poverty, and I think that obviously affects student performance and student achievement,” Brady said.

That’s a common criticism of state-issued school grades in other states — that the ratings punish schools that have more disadvantaged students, and scores don’t take into account the obstacles that students bring with them when they come to school.

“I hear that criticism quite often,” said Commissioner Lewis. “And that criticism is based on the misinformation that our accountability system is based solely on proficiency.”

What he means by “proficiency” is straight scores on Kentucky’s standardized tests. Lewis said student proficiency in math and reading factors significantly into a school’s overall star rating, but it’s not the only consideration.

“By federal law, there’s no way around [using proficiency],” Lewis said. “But we could have taken proficiency and made it count a whole lot more than we have.”

In addition to proficiency on state standardized tests, the stars will also take into account:

  • Achievement gaps — Any school will get a full star deducted if it shows significant differences in test scores between students of different races or income or between special education students and their peers. 
  • Growth — Scores for elementary and middle schools will consider student improvement on math and reading test scores from year to year, as well as improvement in English language proficiency among English language learners.
  • Multiple subjects — Beginning in 2021, high school scores will consider test scores in social studies, science and writing.
  • School climate — Beginning in 2020, school scores will reflect a measure for school climate, determined by student surveys.
  • Graduation — Scores for high schools will consider the percentage of students who graduate.
  • Transition readiness — Scores for high schools will consider students’ scores on college placement tests like the ACT and how many students complete worked-based learning or receive industry certifications that help them transition to work or college. 

All those data points will be available on Kentucky’s online school report cards for the public to sift through. But at the top of the report card, every school will be marked with a number of stars.

We’ll see how schools and families respond to the ratings when the Kentucky Department of Education releases its latest school report cards based on data from last school year later this fall, perhaps as early as the end of the month. 

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.
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