WHEN the state releases its first letter grades for schools, the voices of reform and the voices of status quo won't go away. In fact, they may get louder. Here's our advice to parents, for whom the information is ultimately intended: A little common sense goes a long way.
Plenty of publicity surrounds the calculation method and release of the school grades. So we won't rehash that here. Instead, we turn our attention to parents and taxpayers who really just want to know if the school where their kids attend or the school down the street is doing a good job of educating.
The letter grades, whether or not they're based on a perfect formula, are a starting point in the quest for accountability. It's up to parents and other interested parties to figure out if they want to look behind the letter grade. We hope they will.
The letter grades were developed using a lot of background data, including the slicing and dicing of test scores in multiple ways. Don't be afraid to delve into the numbers. One of the best reforms brought about by No Child Left Behind was the requirement for disaggregated data. Schools were forced to pay attention to achievement gaps impacting minorities, English language learners and children from low-income families. High-achieving students could no longer mask issues with poor-performing students.
Be prepared to spend some time sifting through the data that led to the grade. The report card is divided into three areas: student achievement, student growth and whole school performance. But determining the grade is no small task. The state Education Department's report card guide is 32 pages. Intended for educators and administrators, the guide isn't light reading. It includes information as basic as noting that the equivalent GPA for an A grade is 3.75 or higher, and as complicated as the multipliers and weights involved in specific areas of the report card.
Even multiple pieces of data will fail to give the full picture of a school. The information contained in the report card will be best used with the information parents glean from their children, their children's teachers and their own experiences at the school in question. Sometimes, data can help pinpoint a specific academic achievement issue with an obvious fix. At the same time, troubling data may simply be the result of a bigger issue such as teacher turnover or weak leadership.
And some information that parents want or think is important may not even be part of the report card formula. Whether a school focuses on the arts, offers foreign language courses, has a diverse student or teacher population and even a school's location are some of the factors parents consider.
We hope that parents will find the report cards helpful. But they shouldn't rule out the possibility that they need to do more homework to find the information they deem most important in judging a school's performance. The report cards are just a start.