New MSDE Star System Overlooks Achievement Gap

On Tuesday December 4th the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) released the first iteration of its new school accountability, or “star ratings,” system as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). On the surface, understanding how schools are performing against a set of consistent measures seems reasonable. At its best, a school rating system helps parents know how their child’s school (or prospective school) is performing and how that compares to others in the county or state. Furthermore, a rating system has the potential to provide a useful roadmap to principals and teachers on how to improve their schools.

The problem is, as it ever has been, that rating education is complicated and nuanced. Rating systems almost never account for this complexity because a rating system almost always prioritizes the aggregate. Thus, any attempt to make a system “easy” ultimately misses important considerations. MSDE’s new accountability system is no exception – as has been shown in responses over the past two weeks.

I appreciate MSDE’s effort to share transparently the criteria being considered for the school ratings. These criteria include PARCC scores, chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, a well-rounded curriculum, and the achievement of English Language Learners – all important components of a quality education.

Yet, the most glaring omission from the criteria is any emphasis on decreasing the very-well documented and critically important student achievement gap that persists throughout the state of Maryland along racial and socioeconomic lines – two groups that unfortunately, in our unjust society, too often include the same children. State-wide results from the 2018 PARCC assessments show white students outperforming students of color by 19-39 percentage points in subject area tests. These gaps have remained relatively consistent for every administration of the PARCC assessment and show that across Maryland, black, brown, and poor students are not receiving the education they deserve. The new rating system fails to take into consideration or hold schools accountable for this persistent, disturbing gap.

One would think that in order to receive the highest possible rating on a tool created for the Every Student Succeeds Act, there must be evidence that every student is succeeding. This is not happening here; instead, the rating system gives schools with significant achievement gaps the chance to still receive the highest “5-star” ranking. One does not have to look hard to come across a highly respected 5-star high school in a nearby suburban school district where black students are lagging behind their white peers by 41 percentage points in Math and 29 percentage points in English. This is but one of many examples I found when looking more closely at the newly identified “5-star schools”. While this may be a 5-star school for some students, it is not for students of color. Reviewing this breakdown by poverty level is well worth exploring and sharing here, but MSDE does not yet share this data.

By omitting the achievement gap as a factor in its rating system, MSDE is allowing this school to mask the fact that some students are being served significantly better than others.

A rating system that fails to consider student data disaggregated by race and socio-economics perpetuates the incorrect notion that schools in places like Baltimore City and Prince George’s County—with significantly larger populations of black or brown students and substantially more concentrated poverty—are somehow worse. It also completely ignores the well documented negative effects of poverty on the education of children. Just as problematic, it misleads the parents of those children whose performance may not be accurately reflected in aggregated, school-wide data into believing that their child’s school is serving them well when there is often evidence to the contrary. It sends the message that Maryland considers schools “great” whether or not the achievement gap is being addressed.

It is disappointing that instead of proactively and boldly identifying the racial and economic achievement gaps we know exist in schools across every county in this state, Maryland developed a rating system that masks the problem and perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequity.

At the Fund, we strive every day to improve the educational outcomes for children growing up in Baltimore City. It is important to understand how our city’s schools are performing—not just relatively (though I do look forward to the state fulfilling its responsibility to compare demographically like schools), but against objective measures as this rating system intends. I am not opposed to the idea of honestly examining how schools serve their students. But context matters. If, as a state, we are going to live up to the ideal that every student succeeds, we have to value the achievement of every student. This new rating system simply does not do that.