School values don’t fit into a single score 

Scholars at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, in Oklahoma School Grades: Hiding “Poor” Achievement, anticipated the mess. They concluded, “a primary assumption of the A-F accountability system, that student test scores can be dissected and manipulated into valid indicators of school performance, is simply false.” The bubbling-in of three questions out of 50 separates “A” from “F” schools.

The scholars identified the reason why the report cards are unfixable: They ignore the 70 percent of student performance due to out-of-school factors beyond the control of educators.

Preliminary versions of the 2013 reports were issued repeatedly and retracted in order to correct errors. After the A-F report cards finally became official— and then corrected one last time — they suffered from even more of the flaws explained by Hiding “Poor” Achievement.

The State Department of Education ultimately reported an overall increase in test scores, and more selective schools earned “A’s.” But its test-driven report card gave “D’s” and “F’s” to two-thirds of the Oklahoma City Public Schools. Neighborhood middle schools all earned “F’s,” while Taft, which is widely respected for its excellence, received a “D.”

Social science explains why the answers to extreme poverty rarely are found inside the classroom’s four walls and why schooling must be a team effort. The 90-percent low-income OKCPS must invest in socioemotional supports.

The school-based A-F report card is a costly distraction. It diverts time and money to meeting primitive metrics and distracts from evidence-based best practices. The punitive use of data corrupts, and its toxicity flows down onto students, polluting their learning cultures.

Let’s stop trying to combine the complexities of schooling into a single score.

Many of the report card’s metrics should be reported simply as they actually are, and not shoehorned into a single all-encompassing letter. A Consumer Reports of diagnostic data would be more accurate and useful.

Let’s choose a constructive alternative for improving schools rather than settling adult scores. During MAPS for Kids reforms, the district adopted the Organization Health Inventory (OHI). It is a sophisticated measure of what it is really like in our schools and is a tool for creating a team focus on school improvement. It helped produce a dramatic increase in student performance.

Sadly, those gains did not survive the high-stakes following test frenzy NCLB and the teacher-bashing “reforms” it spawned. Recently, OKCPS announced a recommitment to the OHI. Rather than generating a simplistic grade, the OHI probes deeply into schools’ goal focus, climate, adaptability and student engagement. The district again will use the OHI for training administrators and nurturing distributive leadership to build the collaboration necessary for turning around highpoverty schools. It should be a model for future state report cards.

Thompson blogs regularly on national education issues at The Huffington Post, This Week in Education, School Matters and Living in Dialogue.

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