School grades are flawed
Op-ed by Jackie Doherty, published in The Sun, Sept. 18, 2009
Last Thursday, The Sun ran an article (“What’s your school’s grade?”) that assigned grades for public schools based on a flawed rating system from the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank with its own education agenda. As a parent of two children in the Lowell Public Schools and a member of the Lowell School Committee, I am writing to set the record straight regarding the biased methodology used to determine those grades, and this newspaper’s misleading coverage of the issue.
According to the Pioneer Institute’s Web site, the grades assigned to schools were determined “based primarily on MCAS test data.” I support accountability, but until the state tracks individual student progress rather than comparing this year’s third-graders with last year’s third-graders and so on, the test scores offer limited information. Yes, the data helps inform strategies around teaching specific standards, but to base a district’s grade on test scores without looking at individual student progress or demographics is unfair and has little to do with the quality of education in our classrooms.
Demographics, such as transient population, high poverty levels and limited English fluency, are huge factors that affect MCAS scores, yet these had no role in Pioneer’s rating system. For instance, an impoverished Lowell third-grader, who barely speaks English has attended our schools for one year and scores “Needs Improvement” on MCAS, would negatively impact our grade under the Pioneer model even though that score is a real achievement considering the challenges. Given this rating system, it is no surprise that all the large urban districts received poor grades from Pioneer while the wealthy communities scored very well.
What is surprising, however, was how The Sun chose to report the story: Lowell’s grades were compared with our wealthy suburban neighbors. Westford, a town with 2.5 percent low income and 7.5 percent “First Language Not English,” received Pioneer grades of A for elementary, A for middle and A+ for high school; Groton, a town with 2.7 percent low income and .6 percent not English speaking scored similarly with A-, A- and A+. Lowell, which has 67 percent low income and 47.6 percent not English speaking, received grades of D-, D- and B-.
If the newspaper had reported a balanced story by mentioning the limits of the rating system and including scores of other large urban districts, such as Lawrence (D-, F, D), Brockton (D+, D+, B-) and Worcester (D, D-, B-), a different story would have emerged.
It’s also worth noting that of the state’s five largest urban school districts, in 2007 Lowell had the highest percentage of schools that made Adequate Yearly Progress in English and the second highest in math. In 2007, two out of every five Lowell third-graders were still learning English, the largest percentage in the commonwealth, yet those students outperformed their peers in language acquisition. When compared with other urban districts, Lowell fares well.
The point is not that Lowell schools are perfect — far from it. But we hold our own with similar districts, and more importantly, we are committed to doing better. Diversity in our schools is both our greatest strength and our greatest challenge, and we must work together as a community to overcome the socioeconomic and language obstacles our students face. What we don’t need is flawed grading from the Pioneer Institute and unfair comparisons from our local newspaper, both blatant attempts to erode confidence in a truly diverse and exceptional public school system.
Jackie Doherty is vice chair of the Lowell School Committee and chair of the Urban Division of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. She can be reached at www.jackiedoherty.org.