The Boston Public Schools are experiencing a unique form of grade inflation: The district has found a way to downplay the ratings given by the state to some of its poorest-performing schools.
The city, which feels it has a better rating system, has good intentions. But parents, especially those new to the school system, such as recent immigrants, rely on ratings to understand what can sometimes seem like a bewildering array of choices for their children. They need unvarnished information, even when it’s unflattering.
The state’s system for evaluating school quality was revamped last year by the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to comply with new federal laws. It’s based mostly on student performance, along with criteria like graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and how many students take college-level work.
The results can be unsettling — and like any other grading system, that’s part of the point. According to the state, for instance, English High School is “in need of broad/comprehensive support,” which is the lowest state grade.
Boston developed its own four-tier school rating system in 2017 but didn’t entirely substitute it for the state standards in the information it makes available to parents. Schools the state put in turnaround status (such as the Madison Park Vocational Technical High School) or that have been taken over by the state because of chronic underperformance (such as the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester) were automatically put in the bottom tier.
As of next school year, though, the city will abandon that policy and use only its own system. Parents can still find the state’s assessment with an extra mouse click, but how many will know to look?
The Boston system is called the School Quality Framework and is calculated with a complex formula that integrates several broad factors. Student performance is three-quarters of the score, but the city calculates it differently than the state. In the city rating, “family, community, and culture” — meaning whether the school is safe and well-organized or families are involved and feel welcome — accounts for 10 percent. “Teaching and learning” — whether the school has highly effective teachers or a rigorous curriculum — counts for 7.5 percent of the score. “Leadership and collaboration” — whether the school retains effective teachers or has a collaborative culture among staff — also counts for 7.5 percent.
The city hatched its own system out of a desire expressed by parents and other stakeholders to use a more holistic method to judge schools. Good things may be happening at schools the state says are underperforming, the thinking goes, and evaluations should reflect that.
But what’s the point of great “leadership and collaboration” or the other fuzzy criteria in the city system if they don’t lead to strong student performance?
The city’s alternative system can soften the accountability and transparency that ratings are designed to provide. Take the English High example: It would probably be classified as a tier 2 or tier 3 school in the city’s system because of progress it has made in student-performance growth, though its graduation rate still lags behind the statewide rate.
None of this matters to savvy parents who already know the schools and understand how to navigate the system; they’re the last people who need state or city ratings in the first place. It’s parents struggling to make sense of their choices who are disserved by muddled evaluations.
“When the tiers don’t mirror state levels, it can get very confusing,” said Latoya Gayle, executive director of Boston School Finder, a nonprofit that maintains a website with comprehensive information about all city schools, including private institutions. “They said that they’re trying to make things easier but it keeps getting more complicated.”
The more complicated and contradictory the evaluations become, the harder it will be for those evaluations to accomplish their purpose. No accountability measure is perfect, no grade captures every nuance. But if the state considers a school failing, that’s information that the city shouldn’t try to sugarcoat.