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Opinion: Key advisor explains school grades site

Robert Reichardt is director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.

I recently had coffee with a friend who works in K-12 education and who had a strong negative reaction to Colorado School Grades. I was the technical advisor, data manager and analyst for Colorado School Grades, which assigned a grade to most public schools on their overall performance, achievement, and growth. It also provides other data on schools and information for parents on how to engage in school improvement. I wanted to try and respond to my friend’s concerns here, as I think his concerns are held by others as well.

First, my friend expressed a deep suspicion that this project was not aimed at helping our public education system, but instead part of an effort to tear it down. The project goals were outlined early in the Colorado School Grades process:

  • Create a user-friendly tool that will facilitate parents’ access to school performance data.
  • Use familiar, “A though F” letter grades to provide parents with a clear indication of school performance.
  • Improve parents’ understanding of school performance by translating existing Colorado Department of Education (CDE) data into a more intuitive, easy-to-understand report card.
  • Develop more rigorous cut points or dividing lines between grades to provide a more precise indication of school performance.
  • Empower parents to make informed decisions so that they can more confidently navigate the open enrollment process and/or engage in improving their chosen school.

I see these goals as supporting our education system and I think we met many of these goals in product we produced. I can unequivocally say that those I worked with clearly voiced the belief that this effort will lead to an improved education system. I think there is a range of school performance and that being open about differences in performance is good for education. This type of transparency helps build support for our schools.

New site supports the school choice process

I believe Colorado School Grades supports the school choice process within Colorado and that choice is good for our schools and districts. Colorado School Grades provides information to help parents make a more informed choice about which school is best for their child. The choice process engages families and leads to higher satisfaction in schools. I think parent satisfaction is crucial to developing support for the increased school funding our system needs. Choice can also provide signals to school and district leaders about what parents and children value in their schools.

An additional concern I heard was the report card was too simplistic and essentially cheapens the discussion about school quality. Our state system already reduces school quality to a single label and report card through the school performance framework (SPF), but uses labels that are meaningless to parents. For example, can you tell me which is school is better, one with a Priority Improvement Plan or one with an Improvement Plan? (The answer is Improvement Plan).

The final school grade in Colorado School Grades uses the same input data as the SPF, but provides more meaningful labels and more differentiation between schools. While the SPF school report card helps educators identify school strengths and weakness, they are not very helpful to families. The Colorado School Grades translates the SPF information for a different audience.

However, I would never say that the Colorado School Grades represent everything that is good or bad about schools. We know that parents value many things about schools including convenience, curriculum, environment, values, safety, and attention for their kids. The bottom line is Colorado School Grades provides one view of schools, but not the only important view.

There is room for more outreach and engagement

My friend suggested Colorado School Grades should provide information on those other aspects of schooling. Our research into how other states grade their schools showed they have additional data such as parent and student surveys as well as student course taking behavior. I think all of this information is valuable, and I would love to see our state collect this information. However, I do not think the state will start collecting that information any time soon, nor do we need to wait for that new data to report on the data we already have.

Finally, my friend suggested the process would have been improved by engaging and soliciting the input of educators and parents. I think we went through a careful process that examined the ramifications of many choices we made. We received input from many parties.

That said, I think there is always room for more outreach and engagement. As with anything, there is room for improvement – and while I think Colorado School Grades is a strong step in the right direction, it will certainly evolve. I hope to continuing talking with my friend and others who want to discuss the choices made in the Colorado School Grades and the process of supporting and improving our schools.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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