mikeTwo weeks ago, the Maryland State Department of Education released its first ever set of star-ratings for schools.   According to this system, the presumably most successful schools got 5 stars.   The presumably most struggling schools received 1 star.  The whole educational world here in Baltimore and throughout the state responded.  There were star maps of districts and counties in the papers.   There were multiple television and news articles about the star ratings and where schools fell.  Social media was abuzz:  “How many stars did your school get?”   The world accepted the stars.

We respectfully submit that the star-rankings are hooey.

With all due respect to the policymakers who spent recent years developing this new rating system and the expenses committed to this venture, we simply cannot accept that schools should be rated like the last Marvel movie or the slightly fancy restaurant you may have eaten in last weekend.

For years, our policymakers have worked to simplify the understanding and evaluation of schools.   The simpler, the better, right?   Just test scores.  Simple star-ratings.  Some states grade schools on a scale of A to F.    This fundamentally misses the idea that educating children, in every context, is a complex, nuanced, and intricate effort and that outcomes are equally complex.   The more we try to simplify our understanding of great education, the further we are from making it any better, richer, deeper, more effective.   Instead of coming to this realization, we keep doubling down on simplistic, inaccurate, and corrosive measures.

Moreover, we continue to rely on measures that are simply not valid.   This year, 65% of the star rating is based on PARCC scores, a test that the state has already decided to abandon after less than a decade of implementation.   (By the way, we announced our concern about PARCC testing and predicted its demise in the first year of its implementation.)   Most educators and honest education policymakers know the many flaws of standardized testing (with a special nod to this particular standardized test), yet school Boards, State policymakers, and star-rating developers continue to pretend that this measure matters–until the next test comes along and the last one doesn’t matter anymore.

The other problems with this star-rating system are numerous.   It clearly favor schools with lower levels of poverty.   It relies on bureaucratic tricks around course offerings and gradings.  (Watch the star-ratings increase next year when districts get the hang of the tricks!)  They will rely on climate surveys that will be skewed to groups and constituencies that are more prone to respond to surveys.   Districts will begin to use these star ratings in ways they were not intended – like school accountability, charter renewal, or other levers of decision-making.   They simply do not report out the complex strengths and challenges of any individual school and, instead, invite folks to look no deeper than a star-level label.

We have been pursuing standardization and simplicity in school accountability since No Child Left Behind in 2004.   No empirical evidence says our public schools are any better.   Experiential evidence may indicate that they have been co-opted by testing and accountability and have become less effective.   In 2018, we will start transitioning to our third standardized test and a new star system here in Maryland.   In another five years, we will mostly likely try a new test or maybe apples or grades instead of stars – with the presumption that it will be these things that will fix education.

We realize that we may offend many who are excited by the stars.    And there may only be few strong voices against this kind of rating system in this era of school accountability and testing.   But we are convinced that this focus will do nothing – absolutely nothing — to improve our schools, the education our students could and should receive, or make our society better.  In fact, this focus, like the focus on standardized testing, will continue to weaken public education.   While this idea might be counter-cultural now, history will not be on the side of high-stakes standardized testing and school star-ratings.

Somebody needs to say it while we all sit around staring at the stars.

Mike Chalupa, Director