Good Schools Are Messy

Bovine Metropolis

According to the Washington Post, “Virginia is looking for a new way to evaluate its schools”.

The overhaul was motivated by criticism from our MAGA-wannabe governor. Which makes the whole process suspect from the beginning.

Nearly a year after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) criticized the state’s system for judging the success of its schools, the state Board of Education approved guidelines directing an overhaul of its accreditation model.

The board hopes to alter the way it measures the performance of schools. The state currently looks at both students in a school who pass state assessments and those who fail assessments but show sufficient progress in their learning. In the future, the board intends instead to use a “weighted index” that gives schools more credit for higher scores and less credit for lower scores.

At a meeting Thursday, board members also discussed what factors — such as literacy, chronic absenteeism, readiness to graduate, and college or career preparedness — will be used to measure schools in the new system.

In other words, the old system relied on SOL test scores.1 The new system will still rely on them, only in slightly different ways.

However, these official “accountability” systems are not that much different from, and not a whole lot better than, the school rankings produced by the likes of US News and Jay Mathews.

They all learn heavily on standardized tests which are themselves an extremely flawed tool for measuring either student learning or school quality.

Standardized test scores, and the rankings that use them, strongly correlate to parental wealth and education and thus measure socio-economic status more than anything else. The inherent biases in these tests also tend to discriminate against Black and Hispanic students as well as English Language Learners. The ratings thus wind up being signals for socioeconomic and racial residential patterns and reinforce and ossify segregation and inequality. School rankings and scores are reflected in real estate prices. [emphasis mine]

That last part is easy to see here in the DC area where we have many poor neighborhoods mixed with upper middle class and extremely wealthy ones. You don’t need any data to guess which schools rank highest and which lowest.

Then there’s the fact that the curriculum evaluated on most tests is extremely narrow, focusing on reading skills and the mechanical process of school math. Those multiple choice exams never even try to assess the large, very important parts of what a child learns during their time in and out of the classroom.

Many standardized tests used in K-12 classrooms are poor measures of some of the most important academic and social skills we need young people to develop: critical thinking, the ability to collaborate with peers, oral and written expression, research skills, civic engagement, problem solving abilities and creative capacity.

One more thought. The panel working on this “overhaul” says “there will be opportunities for stakeholder input and revisions along the way”. I’m betting they leave out, or at best minimize, input from the most important “stakeholders”: students.

Because if you ask kids about the most important factors in creating a good school and enhancing their educational experience, adults are going to get a whole lot of answers they won’t like and can’t easily measure.

As I said, good schools are messy.

According to their website in 2016, the “Bovine Metropolis Theater [in Denver] is the first dedicated school and theater for improvisation in the Rocky Mountain region and teaches the art of accepting the unknown gracefully”. Good skills for kids to learn but not something that is easily turned into data.

1. SOL = Standards of Learning, the Virginia system of standardized testing in K12 schools.

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