State unveils new rating system for schools

Half of Alaska’s schools were considered failing last year under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Next year, every single school — even the state’s blue ribbon ones — would have gotten an “F” grade. So Alaska decided to join dozens of other states across the country and apply for a waiver.  The state Education Department on Friday unveiled its new system for judging schools, with hopes of providing a better picture of how well the state’s education system is working and where it needs to be improved.

The new formula is complicated. It took officials from the Department of Education and Early Development over an hour to explain all the ins-and-outs to reporters. Here’s the gist: Elementary and middle schools will be rated on achievement test scores, attendance, and how much the school improves each year. High schools also will be judged on how many kids graduate, how many take college or work entrance exams, and how well they do on those tests. Once all the information is tallied, schools will get a star rating, with five being the highest.

Graphic by Heather Bryant

Deputy Commissioner Les Morse thinks it will be a step up from the No Child Left Behind standards, where schools would simply pass or fail based on a metric called “adequate yearly progress.”

“Previously with ‘adequate yearly progress,’ every state had the same system, and schools met or didn’t meet AYP. But there wasn’t much that distinguished beyond that, at least in any public way. You really had to dig in the data and probably be the principal to understand why my school was different than the school down the street.”

The new scoring system isn’t punitive. Schools failing under No Child Left Behind were required to put some  funds toward transferring students to other schools, or toward tutoring programs. Now if a school gets anything less than a four-star rating, it has to develop an improvement plan.

Morse says the state is also paying extra attention to low-income or disabled students, English language learners, and Alaska Natives when determining how much progress a school has made in its star ratings.

“Now we actually distinguish schools in ways that we can figure out how to support them.”

So now that Alaska has this new formula, what’s the data telling us? That about 60 percent of Alaska’s students are attending four- or five-star schools. That on average, Alaska’s urban school districts — Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and the Mat-Su — earn a three-star rating. That all of Alaska’s one-star districts are in the Yup’ik and Inupiat regions of the state. And that the highest scoring districts tend to be found in smaller coastal communities.

While that’s more digestible information than students, parents, and even the Education Department had before, the data set isn’t perfect. Schools that have only a dozen or so students are especially vulnerable to seeing their rating fluctuate based on the performance of a single student. Susan McCauley, who directs the Department’s Division of Teaching and Learning Support, notes that it’s tricky rating schools with non-traditional student bodies.

“There isn’t, for example, a different metric for alternative schools than for more traditional schools. It’s the same metric,” she says.

That means some of the lowest scoring schools in the state are ones that serve pregnant teenagers or incarcerated students. If you’re judging those schools on things like test scores, graduation rates, and attendance, you can expect them to have a harder time stacking up against the state’s other schools.

McCauley points out that these schools can still get credit for improvement, which wasn’t happening before, and that in time, a better sense of how they fit into the rating system.

She says even for traditional schools, the new formula will take some getting used to.

“For a couple of years, we’ve got a new accountability system that folks will need to get familiar with and understand, the way that we got familiar and understood ‘adequate yearly progress.'”

In the meantime, people will at least get to see a few stars on their school’s report card instead of an “F” grade.

Related: Seven Juneau schools get four stars 

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