The good, the bad, and the ugly of Kentucky’s new five-star school rating system

Kentucky’s new school rating system is is set to roll out next month, the Kentucky Department of Education reports. That means that starting in September, you can head on over to the webpage to see exactly how your local school measures up out of five stars.

I’ve discussed before how the new five-star rating system presents some clear advantages, but as always, social media has reared its ugly head, leaving some lamenting Kentucky’s new school rating system as the worst thing since unsliced bread.

Like most things in life, it’s a little more complicated than that.

The Good

As my friend Lane Wright argues, the effectiveness of any rating system rests in its simplicity and its ability to connect to a commonly held sense of value. Considering how we already use five-star ratings for everything from restaurants to hotels to movies, Kentucky’s new school rating system meets that bar. If everything rolls out as planned, it should be easier than ever for parents and community members to get a snapshot of their local school’s quality — no statistics degrees required.

It’s worth noting, however, that the five-star system is merely the how of our changing accountability system. The whats are just as important, and in Kentucky’s case, there are several metrics that will factor into the number of stars that a school receives. In no particular order, here’s what they are and why they’re significant:

  • Proficiency: the number of students at grade level in reading and math (in grades 3-8, and then later in grade 10)
  • Growth:  the measure of gains made from year to year in reading and math (grades 3-8 only)
  • Transition readiness: how well students are prepared for life after high school, whether that’s some form of post-secondary education, a career, or military 
  • Graduation rate: percentage of students successfully graduating from high school
  • “Other” academic indicator: student performance in science, social studies, and writing (in grades 3-8, and then later in grade 10) 
  • School climate: not introduced yet, but scheduled for implementation in 2020

I list those metrics under “the good” column because they’re the culmination of two years of KDE’s engagement with teachers, community members, and policymakers, and personally, I can’t think of any factors that are more critical in assessing a school’s performance. Despite some of its flaws, which we’ll get to later, Kentucky’s new accountability system relies upon more than test scores exclusively to inform us of a school’s strengths and weaknesses, and that should be commended. 

The Bad

You know how I just praised the new system’s simplicity? Here’s where we revisit that, because “simple” can sometimes be a double-edged sword.

In moving toward the five-star ratings, some fear that Kentucky’s system may fail to convey a lot of important information about schools that would otherwise be of interest to parents and community members. For example, a local four-star school may excel at state testing compared to a three-star school, but that three-star school may have a far superior school climate. If you’re a parent trying to choose between those two schools, the star rating doesn’t necessarily provide enough information to help you find the best fit for your kid.

To do that, you would need to comb through Kentucky’s new school report card site, which is a little wonkier. The five-star rating system does a good job of initiating the conversation about school performance, but for specifics, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The Ugly

Finally, let’s get down to the “ugly” side of the matter, by which I’m mostly referring to the nasty criticism and hostility of our new system that’s been brewing on social media. 

From what I’ve seen around Facebook groups and the like, it’s clear that some Kentucky teachers are concerned or even fearful of the consequences that our new accountability system may bring. Some are concerned that state testing is emphasized too heavily within the new rating system. Many are unhappy with the current leaders of our state’s government who are responsible for overseeing its enactment.

Those concerns are perfectly rational, of course, and I’m content to break bread with anyone who has competing ideas about how to improve accountability in Kentucky. However, I’m convinced that many of the fears surrounding our new school rating system are simply unfounded.

Kentucky has already been using statewide school rating systems for over twenty years, and since we’ve begun doing so, there have been absolutely no consequences for schools based on their ratings. The state of Kentucky has yet to lay an almighty hammer down upon schools for subpar state testing performance, and no jot or tittle of our new accountability laws indicate any changes coming soon.

Of course, Kentucky schools that perform at the very bottom of state rankings are required to initiate school turnaround efforts, but that’s a federal law, and surely one in which we can all find value.

The reality is simply that accountability is an ever-changing beast, and like all major policy changes, Kentucky’s new rating system is one that offers both benefits and drawbacks. Let’s recenter our conversation on why accountability matters and maybe it will be easier to focus on the former.

Photo by Paige Bollman, CC-Licensed

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