State Releases New Performance Index For Every School
Questions Raised About How the Index Will Be Used
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
December 10, 2012
A new performance index offers parents a quick and easy snapshot to appraise their public schools, but it has also prompted criticism from some who say the complexities of student success have been reduced to a single number.
State educators are praising the first-ever index, released Monday afternoon, which provides each school with a score based on the average of the last three years of scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test.
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said that for too long the reporting on school performance "has been scattershot."
Often, he said a school's performance would be based on only a single strand of data: the percentage of students who reached the proficiency level on the reading test, for example. The new system "integrates across subject areas, including reading and math, as well as science and writing" he said.
Although the test scores have always been available to the public, the numbers were never before averaged by the state, taking into account all of the tested subjects and grades to produce a single figure.
"There needs to be some kind of transparent way in which you can compare schools,'' said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. But he said "boiling it down to one number always runs a risk."
Cirasuolo said he doesn't want to see parents thinking: "Oh my school is an 80 and the school down the street is an 84. That's a better school." That could be an "erroneous judgment," Cirasuolo said, because the school with the lower index may actually be providing a better education.
The school index numbers are one element in a new state accountability system that also includes placing schools in five tiered categories, ranging from excelling at the top to turnaround schools at the bottom. Those classifications take into account other factors such as the year-to-year improvement students have made on the tests; high school graduation rates; and the performance of racial, ethnic and economic groupings.
The new index replaces the No Child Left Behind system that was linked to the percentage of students who scored at the proficient level on standardized tests. When Connecticut was granted a waiver from No Child Left Behind, a condition was that it design its own accountability system.
Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said he has mixed thoughts about the new index system. "If it helps districts help all their students succeed than we will be — in the long run — in favor."
However, he said, "I'm always worried about a number or a label on something that has as many complexities as public education."
Districts are "dealing with different demographics, different sizes of municipalities, different ways in which local government works with the school," said Rader. "There are so many different things that it makes it hard to compare with a single number."
The new data reveal few surprises. Schools in the wealthier, suburban districts generally outscore schools in the poorer urban districts by large margins, reflecting the state's largest in the nation achievement gap.
On a scale of 0 to 100, the state's goal is to have all schools eventually score at 88 — a rating that indicates that most of the students scored at or above the goal level on the state's standardized tests. A school performance index of 67 or better indicates that most students scored at about the proficient level on the tests.
In New Britain, the performance index for all schools except one is 30 to 50 points lower than the state's goal of 88. Aram Ayalon, a member of the New Britain school board said of the new data: "It's just more of the same labeling and I think labeling people and institutions is a bad thing to do. ... It has many different negative impacts on the children, on adults, on the districts as a whole."
He said he fears that such labeling will only encourage more "white flight, educated flight." Property values may even be affected, he said. "Now they have a number, now they have a category," Ayalon said of real estate agents. "They can give [it] and say: 'That's not a place to live.' "
Ayalon said the index doesn't reflect many of the successes under way in New Britain schools, including an academy for the gifted and talented that scores at the highest level and a winning robotics group.
But in Manchester, where all the school indexes are below the desired 88, school board member Sarah Walton said she sees the data as a positive thing. As a school board member, she said, the index tells her where resources are needed. "I think it helps prioritize when we are in such a critical financial time," she said.
"I understand there's a possibility that it may be misinterpreted," Walton said, "but I really think it opens the door for a conversation to be had. … Even if we are talking about numbers we aren't happy with, at least we're talking about it."
In Glastonbury, where almost all the schools already have an index above 88, Superintendent Alan Bookman said it will take time to tell how useful the new figures are.
"I think the jury is still out," Bookman said. "I think the state would like to give an incentive to schools … to have a higher success level. I think the motivation for doing this is positive."
Bookman said the data provides an easy handle for the public, but the schools "need to look at the data behind the number."
The data posted online Monday also includes a performance target for each school. That figure was reached by subtracting a school's index from the goal of 88 and then dividing it by 12. The idea is that the school will incrementally improve over the next 12 years until it reaches the goal level. However, in no case did the state assign a target improvement that was more than three points. An improvement of more than three points in a year is considered very difficult to reach, state officials said.
For schools with scores of 88 or above, the target is to maintain that level of performance.
Courant staff writers Shawn Beals, Ken Byron, Steve Goode, Jessie Leavenworth and Julie Stagis contributed to this story.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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