ESEA and Richland 2

The South Carolina Department of Education last week released the 2013 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) rankings of school achievement. Overall, Richland 2 received a letter grade of B.

While released by the state, this rating system is a federal accountability measure, formerly called the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), which was part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. When NCLB was widely criticized as requiring performance that was difficult if not impossible to achieve, some states asked to have their work evaluated using different criteria. Last year the U. S. Department of Education unveiled the ESEA as a waiver to the AYP system. The S.C. Department of Education applied for and was approved for the waiver.

The waiver allows South Carolina to use the accountability system that State Superintendent Nick Zais’ office designed. The new system, like those in the past, tracks performance of and makes allowances for subcategories of students. Subcategories include racial demographics, free/reduced lunch students, English proficiency and disabilities.

Letter grades of A to F were assigned to districts and schools in South Carolina under this new accountability system. But while the letter grades were new, the complex formula that determines the ratings has remained similar.

Standardized test scores and on-time graduation are considered. The improved academic performance from one year to the next weighs heavily in the calculations for a school’s and district’s grade. The new rating system incorporated performance in those individual categories into a single number that is used to rate schools on a 0-100 scale, with 90-100 being an A, 80-89 being a B, 70-79 being a C, and so on. It becomes more difficult to obtain a point with each year primarily due to the raised bar of continuous improvement. For instance, elementary schools were evaluated on a 630 point system that this year requires 635 for the same rating.

Critics argue that the complex formula is difficult to understand for school administrators and even more confusing for the parents. Interim Richland 2 Superintendent Dr. Debbie Hamm issued a statement, saying, “While we welcome accountability measures and use data to inform our decisions, the moving targets and sometimes contradictory accountability systems used by our state are confusing at best.”

Zais praised the ESEA scoring method, however, saying, “This new federal report card system is more transparent to parents and the public than the old system. It’s easy to understand and each school district’s summary appears on a single sheet of paper.”

He pointed out that the overall weighted points of 81.8 for Richland 2 and the corresponding letter grade of B are in bold print. A chart explains that the weighted points between 80-89.9 mean that the District’s “performance exceeds the state’s expectations.” However, there is no explanation of the state’s expectation or supporting information for the meaning of the letter grade on the sheet of paper.

Several Richland 2 teachers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they feel the grade, with minimum explanation to the public, is an attempt by Zais to undermine public education and set the stage for private school vouchers.

“If a school plummets from an A to a D or F,” Zais said, “I think it would suggest it is either time to look for another school or get involved in that school.”

The Education Oversight Committee, a non-partisan citizens group that the legislature authorized to provide opinion and guidance on education issues, as well as several superintendents across the state, have taken offense at Zais’ statement. But research has shown time and time again that part of that statement is correct, that parental involvement is key to the success of a student and a school at large. These same groups were against the idea of letter grades last year as demeaning to the teacher or district receiving them and uninformative to the public.

Because the factors involved in the letter grade are not clear to most parents and because the S.C. Department of Education’s explanation of the letter grade process is 26 pages long, more than a single letter grade is needed for parents to make a determination of best fit for their children. For instance, schools that performed middle of the road in test scores received an A letter grade in large part because the students improved. So the letter grade is not necessarily an indicator of the level of performance but rather of the level of improvement.

This is in conflict with the way letter grades are awarded to students on their report cards. The grade on the report card is a measure of their performance, not of improvement. An A is an A from semester to semester. Imagine the student who excels with a 97 grade average and receives an A for the first semester, but has only a bit of room for improvement to the perfect grade of 100. Under the logic of the state grading system, if the student improves to a 99 the next semester, that student would receive a lower grade than the student who moved from an 80 to a 95 the second semester. The letter grade has so simplified the measuring process that its information is meaningless to both educators and parents.

The Palmetto Achievement Student Standard (PASS) test scores for elementary and middle school students and the High School Assessment Program (HSAP) test scores are raw data for how students in individual schools and the district as a whole contribute to the letter grade. Next week, we will report on the PASS and HSAP figures. While released with much less fanfare by the S.C. Department of Education, they may provide more useful information for parents in making informed choices about an education match with their child.

2013 Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) ratings

(2012 grades in parentheses)

Richland 2 School District B (B)

Blythewood High School B (B)

Ridge View High School C (B)

Westwood High N/R

Blythewood Middle B (A)

Kelly Mill Middle            B (B)

Muller Road Middle C (C)

Lake Carolina Elm. A (A)

Bookman Elementary A (A)

Bethel Hanberry Elm. A (A)

Round Top Elm. B (A)