When Grading Schools, Parents Care about Student Growth

"What makes parents think a school is good?"

Given what we do at EdNavigator, people often ask us a variation of this question: “What makes parents think a school is good?”

There isn’t a simple e=mc2 formula that defines a good school because, as you might guess, parents aren’t all the same. Each family’s view of schools depends on the family’s own situation and preferences. Families with more than one child often think about school differently for each one.

We’ve written before that four topics about schools tend to come up in our discussions with families again and again:

1. Overall student performance

Sometimes called “proficiency.” It means, how many of the students in this school can do all the academic stuff that’s expected of them in their current grade level? Parents care about it mostly because it helps them understand how well all the other students their child will be around in school are doing overall.

2. Student learning growth

Regardless of where students were performing when they entered a school, how much are they progressing from one year to the next? After all, a school can’t control whether a student is ahead/behind when she enrolls. It can only ensure that she advances while she’s attending the school. Parents don’t always know what to call this or how to ask about it, but after you talk to them for a few minutes, it’s almost always the thing that captures their attention.

3. Student experience

What does it feel like to attend this school? Do students feel safe, supported, and believed in? Or does the school feel like an impersonal factory in which the students are more like raw materials?

4. Family experience

A great school makes parents and caregivers feel welcomed, involved, and well-informed. Part of the team. Appreciated. The school is organized. It communicates regularly and effectively.

It’s very difficult to have a meaningful conversation about school quality without addressing several of these factors. However, when Louisiana families go to download their local school’s report card, they can only get good information about one of the four: proficiency. That’s what school letter grades (A-F) have been based on, historically.

The families we work with take the school letter grades seriously, but have a hard time understanding why they don’t take student growth into account. Shouldn’t a school where kids are making a lot of progress get a better grade?

After having a few of these conversations, we started issuing our own grades for Orleans and Jefferson Parish schools, which reflect that information and present a different picture. We use those grades every time we discuss a school with a family.

One Mom's Experience

Last year, for example, we were supporting a housekeeper at a downtown New Orleans hotel who wanted to move her two daughters to a better school. She was so fed up with her current experience, she was willing to send her daughters to a school on the Westbank, a trek from her home, if it meant upgrading.

One of the top-choice schools for most families on the Westbank would have been Martin Behrman Charter Academy. It was the second most popular elementary school in the area in 2015-16, with 184 families seeking kindergarten seats in the main round. It earned a C grade from the state; not bad, not amazing.

For several years in a row, however, Behrman has struggled with low student growth. Students there aren’t progressing the way any of us would hope. Nearby, Harriet Tubman Charter School also had a C grade from the state. It was less popular with families, receiving only 59 main round kindergarten applications. And yet, Tubman students have shown much better growth than their peers at Behrman.

The state’s grading system showed parents two C-rated schools. No difference. A system that considered growth would have pegged Tubman as a B and Behrman as a D. Big difference.

The family chose Tubman.

Our Take

To be clear, student growth isn’t everything. Just because a school has high growth doesn’t mean it’s always going to be a great school, or a great school for every family. It’s one piece of data. But I’m not sure how we could give good counsel to families about their school choices without it. Knowing how successfully a school can advance its students really matters to them.

When I hear that state grades should not include student growth because it will make them too complex for families to understand or it will somehow lower the bar for what it means to serve families well, all I can say is, that hasn’t been our experience. Families care about growth. The state accountability system should care about it, too.

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