May 30, 2002 The Anchorage Daily News on public school ratings

Posted: Monday, June 03, 2002

The Alaska Legislature made a good call when it allowed another two years to develop a system for rating the state's public schools. It would have been impossible to produce a meaningful and fair ranking system in time to meet this year's deadline.

A true rating of school performance can help establish accountability and create pressure for improvement, but it's not a simple process.

The rating should reflect how well the school teaches whatever students who come through the door. The simple, easy approach -- using a school's scores on standardized tests -- doesn't do that.

It's well-established that the best predictor of a school's test scores is the socio-economic status of the families it serves. The wealthier and better educated the pool of students, the higher the scores will be. A school could be doing a mediocre job of educating well-off children and still show high scores.

Many schools are too small to produce accurate trends in test scores. When you have only a handful of students in a grade, adding or losing just one child can drastically change scores from year to year. Alaska has 145 schools with less than 10 students in the third grade, the year when standardized testing starts.

Transience is a big issue at many urban schools, especially those serving needier children. Many poor families move frequently, forcing children to switch schools. It's unfair to hold a school accountable for the scores of students who have just shown up from somewhere else.

The state also needed to make sure its rating system squares with new federal requirements passed earlier this year. It would be wasteful for the state to have one ranking system for its own use and another to meet federal standards.

Adding measures besides test scores to the school rankings doesn't necessarily cure the problem. Take the dropout rate, a measure Alaska currently plans to use in school rankings. It is not a hard and fast number. Students who drop out don't always announce they are quitting. It can be hard to tell true dropouts from students who transfer out of a district without filing the appropriate paperwork.

Contrary to the complaints of a few knee-jerk legislators, producing useful information about the quality of a school is not simple. The state has a good reason to spend more time developing its school ranking system.

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