The fractured demands of school accountability

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At first blush, holding schools accountable for their students’ performance sounds like an easy enough task, but as we’re finding out, the process is far from simple. One possible bill in the Minnesota state senate illustrates some of the complexity.

At present, Minnesota uses the Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR), which is largely a combination of different test-score based calculations. This is used to sort schools into different categories based on overall student proficiency as well as well as progress towards closing test score gaps. The system is, in general, less punitive than the No Child Left Behind law, and has lifted some of the pressure to close schools. SF 836, a bill which was raised last session and seems poised to come back this session, would change that, at least for charter schools.

Specifically, the bill would empower charter school authorizers to close schools that spend at least three years in 25th percentile of the MMR ratings. There are several exceptions which, taken together, show how tricky this topic is:

  • Schools that score in the 75th percentile or above on the state’s Focus rating (a score gap measure) are shielded from the provision, presumably because schools that are advancing equity shouldn’t be closed down, even if overall proficiency is low
  • Authorizers can choose not to close schools, but must justify their decision to the state; one possible reason would be a large population of English learners at the schools
  • Schools with 50% or more of students with disabilities are exempt
  • Schools with 70% or more of students in a set of high-risk categories are exempt

Schools in that last group could find themselves participating in a more nuanced accountability system, as proposed in a different bill, HF 1108. These include, but are not limited to, schools serving high numbers of dropouts or students with histories of substance abuse, and it’s reasonable to suggest that an alternative measurement approach would be appropriate.

The core of the issue is this: The MMR rating, while an improvement over the previous system, is still not enough to encapsulate a school’s performance in a single number. It is still unclear whether an appropriately comprehensive and flexible system can be devised, and also unclear whether such a system could be sustained without creating perverse incentives that warp school behavior.

We need to keep evaluating the quality and appropriateness of our tools for measuring schools if we are to some day have a genuinely helpful accountability system.