Seeing Stars

Last week, on a broadcast of the local (and live!) radio show Education Town Hall, educators from Anacostia High School talked about the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools and connected it to the school’s history and future. As Anacostia HS has only 1 star in our new STAR rating of DC’s publicly funded schools, part of that future includes working with DCPS on a plan of action.

Anacostia HS psychologist Dr. Byron McClure noted that the STAR rating is particularly difficult for his school, as some students read at a 5th grade level when they enter. Thus, no matter how well Anacostia educators work with those students over the course of four years, with no growth measure for high schools in the rating, student growth simply doesn’t exist unless and until those students score well on PARCC.

Despite public outcry, our STAR rating is mainly (70%) based on test scores. Like other public schools in DC, Anacostia HS also struggles with the other measures in that rating, mainly attendance, suspensions, and re-enrollment rates.

For instance, during a January 31 council hearing on attendance, council member David Grosso noted that Anacostia has an 86% absence rate and that the school does not have enough staff to attend to this crisis. He then asked one of the government witnesses, deputy mayor for education Paul Kihn, why the city has not invested in staff to help.

Kihn’s reply–that DCPS has invested in a central attendance support team–did not mollify Grosso, who told Kihn to work with other agencies.

But at that same hearing, staff from other city agencies (including child and family services) testified about the difficulty of coordinating their data with those of the schools their families attend. In fact, a lot of the 3-hour hearing seemed a testament to what is not (or cannot be) done to help with attendance and its related ills (lack of affordable and stable housing; lack of transportation; lack of income; lack of safety). The consensus of (in)action strangely aligned with the mayor’s own words on the subject.

Nonetheless, the upshot of both attendance and test score struggles is pretty grim:

We know we have attendance problems at many of our schools, not just Anacostia HS–and that many students who struggle with attendance also have low PARCC scores. Together, this ensures that the schools those students attend will likely have low STAR ratings. But because any change in a student’s growth is not specifically measured at the high school level–nor does there appear to be any coordinated effort between city agencies on attendance–high schools of right like Anacostia will be more likely than not to struggle with test scores and attendance that the rating simply doesn’t ever acknowledge or account for.

We know all this–and I am hardly alone in pointing it out.

Jack Schneider, for instance, gave an excellent presentation a few weeks ago on the fallacy of rating schools with test scores and expecting anything other than grotesque extrapolations often correlated to the socioeconomics of student bodies.

Yet, one of the arguments for mayoral control of schools in DC was that one person would be on top of everything, and that the vaunted interagency coordination that could not be effected otherwise under an unwieldy and politically independent board could easily come to pass with one person calling all the shots everywhere.

No books? No problem! No heat? No problem! Bureaucracy be gone and lo! There will be equity! Rising test scores! Happiness!

But 12 years into mayoral control of our public schools, we know very well that it doesn’t actually work like that.

Worse, the chasm of responsibility to connect agencies and efforts, coupled with a test-heavy rating system correlated with the socioeconomics of our students, have all but ensured that the segregation we have seen thus far in our schools will only increase.

Ironically, even though some problems appear intractable, we actually do have solutions that no one seems to want to even attempt.

Take re-enrollment: Given the mismatch between charter and DCPS middle schools, which do you think will do better on a measure of re-enrollment, when charter middle schools start at 5th grade and DCPS elementaries as a consequence have decimated 5th grades?

Changing this isn’t rocket science–nor is improving the feeder system such that the middle schools those DCPS elementaries feed into are better supported. Remember that Alice Deal for all schtick? (Don’t worry if you don’t–the mayor doesn’t seem to recall it, either.) We can do this–it is entirely in our grasp as a city and doesn’t require a small fortune to effect. It just requires political will.

Or take academic growth: Setting aside the travesty of not including a growth measure for high schools in our ratings, the way in which academic growth is measured here isn’t just the change in raw scores from one year to the next, but the so-called median growth percentile, which compares growth for kids who start out with the same prior score.

This is inherently confusing because the rating system is putting together scores of different groups of kids, with possibly dramatically different starting points and possibilities. (Think comparing growth for wealthy special education kids to growth for non-special education at risk kids.) There’s good reason people were warned not to use median growth percentile for school accountability.

Again, changing this is not rocket science. Combining test scores from different groups (on different tests of different degrees of difficulty to boot!) is not telling you anything except a weirdly disembodied number. (Though I suppose it says that if your job is to improve school ratings, business in DC is really, really good.) Really, how hard is it to not combine test scores that start out separately anyway–and to include a growth measure in high schools?

Because of this needless maelstrom, one LSAT (at the Capitol Hill Cluster School) attempted to outline how the STAR rating works for preK through grade 8. The resulting write-up is, for me, both accurate and rather heroic.

And possibly too kind.

It’s not merely that the relativity of the STAR rating means that we will always have 1-star schools–which is unbearably cruel, given what’s at stake. It’s also that it purports to be neutral. After all, who can argue with test scores? They’re numbers–and everyone knows numbers don’t lie! Numbers are neutral!

But the reality is that the STAR rating and others like it are most definitely not neutral. Rather, these ratings were created out of deeply political motivations to determine school winners and losers. And without infusions of real resources tied to those 1- and 2-star ratings (and not merely listening sessions mediated by private advocacy group PAVE), DC schools with low ratings stand to lose a lot.

Moreover, if the STAR rating were about ensuring quality in our schools, we would know exactly how far those Anacostia high school teachers moved their students every single year. And we would also know what resources they got–and the resources they needed–in doing so.

But these ratings not only don’t tell us any of that, but teachers at Anacostia will be penalized to the extent that their students do not score well on PARCC. Not to mention that those teachers get only a few years to move that bar. (See p. 35 of our ESSA plan to see what happens when a school doesn’t move that bar fast enough: privatizing.)

We thus find ourselves in a very interesting place–wherein we have a school ratings system that cannot really tell us about school quality, all the while it purports to do just that.

Soooo: why do we have this rating system?

It would appear to be about choice–but even then, in a very limited context.

While all our charter schools are about choice, and now educate about half our students, most families attending DCPS also engage in choice of some sort, whether through the out of boundary process or through selective high schools. In fact, according to school analyst Mary Levy, about 25% of our high school students currently attend selective high schools–which makes DCPS’s choice to invest in a new one (Bard) and expand another (Banneker) on trend.

Except that the trend is a little concerning.

That is, some of DCPS’s selective high schools have a requirement for at least a score of 4 on both sections of the PARCC. (Indeed, School Without Walls high school recently got into some trouble when it was revealed that someone somewhere didn’t think through weaning the admissions process away from test scores.)

But relatively few of our students score that high.

On the last PARCC results (SY17-18), for instance, I counted only 8 high schools with 20% or more of their student bodies with a 4+ on the PARCC math section. The numbers for ELA were higher, with 15 schools with 20% or more of the student body scoring 4+. Yet, the total number of students that represents is small: 975 for ELA and 401 for math, out of about 4000 high schoolers tested that year.

To be sure, more schools than just those had measurable numbers of students scoring 4+ in either subject. But those student numbers are very small both absolutely and relatively.

Moreover, it’s an exceedingly selective group of schools with the most students scoring 4+ on either math or ELA.

For instance, for the ELA 4+ total, 42% of the students scoring thusly come from selective high schools and 24% from Wilson. That is, two-thirds of the total number of students at schools with 20% or more of the student bodies scoring 4+ on ELA come from just 5 schools–4 of which are selective by admission (and 1 of which you could argue is selective via expensive real estate, Wilson).

For the math 4+ total, it’s even more skewed: 50% of the students come from selective high schools and, again, 24% from Wilson. That is, nearly three-quarters of the total number of students at schools with 20% or more of the student bodies scoring 4+ on math come from just 4 schools (3 of which are selective by admission).

So, let me ask again: why do we have this rating system?

We have just spent a considerable amount of civic money and effort not only making it easier for families to reject schools with low test scores (the star rating appears on our lottery website), but also investing in tests that make it easier for schools with some of the city’s highest test scores to select out an already limited pool of high-scoring students.

All the while we learn nothing from the resulting ratings about the resources provided (or needed) at our schools or, for high schools, growth that teachers have been able to effect for their students–who more likely than not start out at or below grade level everywhere except for a relatively small number at only a small subset of our high schools.

Perhaps the worst part is how these ratings enable a grotesque educational bait and switch.

That is, the underlying assumption appears to be that the ratings enable parents to choose and thus helps students and makes schools better, presumably through competition. But the only competition herein is pitting public against the public, such that the public loses every time it wins, since our public schools are a system of, for, and by the public. Not to mention that “winning” in this context is very strange indeed: is it a slot at a selective high school for your child? Or your school not being closed down or privatized? All the while this so-called competition neither informs us about what is really going on inside our schools nor helps schools support the students they have.

So, gotta ask again:

Why do we have this rating system if it’s not really about quality or helping schools or truly informing parents or ensuring we have adequate resources for the majority of our schools that do not now (and may never) have many students getting a 4+ on PARCC?

Maybe this rating system, which appears so ill-suited for what it purports to do, is really about something else entirely–say, resources?

That is, because 1-star schools will always be with us (how convenient!), our city will thus ensure a steady flow of resources from closed or privatized 1-star schools (buildings, students, personnel, furniture, supplies) for, well, whoever would like to have them.

Now who’s winning?

4 thoughts on “Seeing Stars

  1. In D.C., 4 formidable groups that should be suspected of working against public education are
    (1) the Gates-funded Center for American Progress which advocates for charter schools and whose favorite candidate is Cory Booker. CAP’s Ann O’Leary walked back Clinton talking points that were critical of privatized K-12. CAP’s VP of education is from TFA and other staff are from TFA and Jeb Bush’ Excellence in Education (2) Gates-funded Aspen Pahara (and, the affiliated Senior Congressional Education Staff Network). Pahara was founded by the same person who founded TFA, Bellwether and New Schools Venture Fund, all Gates-financed (3) New America, its COO is a Broad resident. She worked for Arne Duncan, was in Chicago Public Schools and, was a founder of the New Leaders group in New Orleans. Other New America staff are also from CAP (4) the most prominent Catholic and conservative universities in D.C. Out of 20 schools of higher ed. in D.C., 17 are private.


  2. Prof. Tanya Hernandez of Fordham University wrote an insightful article at CNN. Extrapolating from what she wrote, the situation that allowed the hedge funds and tech monopolists, under the guise of philanthropy, to make inroads into urban schools was that people of color represented them. Using “strategic Blackness” to advance their own careers, they harmed their communities. My opinion -Corey Booker, BAEO, and Hakeem Jeffries are examples. Hernandez wrote, there has been a shift, people are willing to be truthful and real and say, “Yes”, that person looks like me, but, that person is not protecting the people in our community who need it the most.

    Dr. Keith Benson’s article, “To the Black Education Reform Establishment: Be Real with Who You Are and Who’s Interest You Represent”, which is linked at the Diane Ravitch blog, Feb. 16, 2019, makes a similar point.


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