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Commentary: California’s proposed school rating system will only lead to confusion

Guest contributor | September 6, 2016

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Proposed school report card (from California Department of Education).

Proposed school report card (from California Department of Education).

By Laurie Benn

As a mother of seven children, I’ve spent a lot of time involved in my local public schools. I’ve always known that a good education was one of the most important things that I could give to my children. I was shuffled around in the foster care system from birth until I was 9 years old, so I don’t have a lot of good memories of my early school experience.

When I was 9, I was adopted into a loving home where my mother, who was actively involved in my school, cemented the importance of a good education. Now, as parents, my husband and I not only show up to parent/teacher conferences and ensure that homework is completed, we also make sure that our children’s schools are doing their part to ensure that our children are learning.

This was particularly important in my district, Pasadena Unified, which allows families to apply for any school within the district, not just the school closest to their house. Even though my husband attended Pasadena Unified District Schools, as each of my children got older, I always had to do some homework of my own – going on school tours, interviewing principals, looking at school performance data and finding the right fit. I have spent countless hours looking into schools and trying to figure out which ones were right for each of my children.

This is why I was deeply concerned to learn about the new school rating system that has been proposed by the California Department of Education for California’s schools. This system would make it much more difficult for families, like mine, to find the right schools for their children, or to know if their children are attending a low-performing school that needs improvements.

This proposed system does have some important new information that families deserve to know about schools. California is finally going to measure every school based not only on test scores, but also on their school safety and climate, graduation rates and efforts to engage families. This new potential system, however, has been designed in such a way that it will be virtually impossible for most families to easily understand their school’s overall performance.

For example, the new system does not include any overall rating for each school. Instead, the plan is to give every family a report card with seventeen different categories, each of which is rated by one of five colors. Every family will have to look at this sea of colors and figure out for themselves whether their school is excellent, about average or low performing.

While some families might be able to interpret such a complex system, most families will be left frustrated when they try to answer the simple question, “How is my child’s school doing?”

And what about when families want to choose the right school? Under this new system, a family like mine couldn’t just ask, “What are the highest performing schools in our districts?” and then get more information about those schools. Instead, we would have to compare 17 different color ratings of each school to each other. The new system should be designed to be user-friendly and provide greater access and equity for all families so that they can easily compare different schools to one another.

California’s new school rating approach cannot and will not succeed unless families are given clear information that summarizes their overall school performance. When I was in Sacramento recently to speak out on this issue as part of the Parent Power Network, I told lawmakers that an overall rating for schools is like a resume for job applicants. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, but it at least gives you a quick way to determine who is at least worth interviewing. Our state has an obligation not just to give us a bunch of data or colors, but to tell each and every one of us overall how well our schools are doing.

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