By January 2003, the state is required by law to rank every school in Alaska. Each school will get one of four ratings: distinguished, successful, deficient or in crisis. Ever since the Legislature passed this mandate, educators and state officials have spent inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out a fair way to rank schools.
Earlier this year, the state Board of Education reviewed ideas produced so far and asked for a ranking system that looks at more than just test scores. Thursday and Friday, another brain trust gathered in Anchorage to ponder other possibilities.
Any legitimate ranking system has to look beyond schoolwide summaries of test scores. The best predictor of school test scores is the socio-economic status of students who go there. Schoolwide scores, with rare exceptions, tell more about the demographics of students than they say about the quality of the education.
The fairest way to judge the performance of a school is to track individual students who stay in that school and see how they perform over the years. It's not fair to hold a particular school responsible for the test scores of students who just arrived or who are constantly switching schools or who are chronically truant. In Anchorage, some schools have more than 100 percent student turnover during a year.
Even after the state has a fair system for labeling schools, though, an important question remains: So what? A school's ranking doesn't trigger any rewards or penalties or extra help.
If the point is to find out which schools are in trouble, we already know.
Apparently the point of the rankings is to stimulate community pressure for improving a low-performing school. And that might well happen.
In some cases, though, it might have a less helpful effect. Schools might respond by taking shortcuts to boost rankings. Instructors could focus inordinate attention on students whose scores are just below key cutoff points in the ranking process. Obtaining the desired ranking might become an exercise in school politics rather than education improvement.
''Bright flight'' is another risk. In places where students and staffers can easily transfer, the best and the brightest might flee for schools with better rankings. As that happens, the school may start a downward spiral in which the hardest to educate students are left behind with the least experienced staffers.
Whatever the board decides, Alaska's system of school rankings will be a blunt instrument. All the complexities that produce a good education have to be reduced to a single label with a grand total of three syllables.
That labeling can be useful if it is based on how well a school does its job, not on what kind of students attend. But it's important to remember that the rankings are only one tool for the complex and challenging job of improving Alaska's public education.
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