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Damned by data: Do states spend more time rating schools than helping them?

In this age of data worship, state education agencies seem to devote more time to rating schools than helping them. Many state legislatures have embraced a "damned by data" strategy to force change in public education. As a result, school districts are neck-deep in data collection mandates.

In response to a state law passed by the ever-helpful General Assembly, Georgia has introduced another category of school ratings, the Financial Efficiency Star Rating, released last week. My problem is most new ratings don't help anyone, schools, students or parents.

Some ratings, such as Georgia's College and Career Ready Performance Index, are unwieldy and overly complex. For example, points awarded for student growth can mask low performance. Yes, students are improving but they may be a long way from proficient, which parents can only know if they look behind the final CCRPI score to all the contributing categories and bonus points.

On the other hand, the state's new financial efficiency rating is overly simplistic, yoking a three-year average of per-pupil spending and CCRPI scores to award a star rating of one to five, with one being the worst and five the best.

I've already expressed my skepticism about the state's school climate ratings.  Allow me now to throw some shade on these new financial efficiency ratings.

The academic challenges students bring to the classroom affect spending. More challenges require more resources. Plus, location influences salaries; the metro area has a higher cost of living than south Georgia so pay scales are higher.

It should be no surprise Atlanta Public Schools - with deep multigenerational poverty to overcome -- spends more per student than Forsyth, which has become a county of choice for middle-class transplants to Atlanta.

Gwinnett, the state's largest system, earned a high score, in part because of the low-per-student cost derived from the district’s economies of scale. Gwinnett has been able to raise student performance with far larger-than-average schools. City Schools of Decatur, on the other hand, earned a low score; it has deliberately maintained smaller schools so it doesn't see any economy of scale benefit.

These financial efficiency ratings represent a rough-hewn measure that rests on the validity of CCRPI, which rests almost entirely on the validity of the state Milestones tests. And that is an unproven foundation since the tests are so new.

The state Department of Education issued its own caveat:

While the star rating provides additional information about the relationship between Per Pupil Expenditure and student achievement, users should note its limitations. Although all districts follow the same reporting guidelines, inconsistencies in the use of school codes have resulted in the districts reporting similar expenditures in different ways to the GaDOE. For example, a school district that reports teacher salary expenditures at the district level will result in very high district allocations relative to a district that reports teacher salary expenditures at the school level. The Financial Review Division has proposed clarifications on the use of school codes, and the revision to the Handbook is expected to be released in March 2016. This rating is designed to be used in conjunction with other information to obtain a holistic assessment of a school or district.

According to AJC education reporter Ty Tagami:

In core metro Atlanta, the Gwinnett County Public Schools achieved the best score, 4.5, and Atlanta Public Schools the worst, 1.5. Forsyth County, beyond the Perimeter but still in metro Atlanta, had the best score in the state, scoring the only 5 out of all 180 districts. Forsyth scored well for academics but also was among the 10 districts with the lowest cost per pupil, at $7,115 averaged over three years. Atlanta, however, had the second highest cost in the state, at $13,297 per student.

Fulton County Schools fared nearly as badly as Atlanta while DeKalb County Schools and Decatur City Schools were below average. The Cobb County School District did alright, but Marietta scored poorly.

You can check out your system's rating here. You have to choose a school district and then  select a report for elementary, middle or high school. Click on the “Financial Efficiency” tab to find the overall district rating, which is displayed in each of the three report types.

Districts could respond to the scores and explain the causes of their results. You will see the responses on the state site. However, only a few districts chose to provide an explanation. One was APS, which said:

APS faces unique challenges impacting this rating.

(1) Atlanta has one of the highest costs of living in the state, which has an impact on salaries needed to retain quality employees.

(2) APS has an unfunded pension liability with an increasing obligation until 2027.

(3) APS students require additional resources with a large proportion of students in high-need and high-cost categories such as special education, ESOL and poverty.

(4) Generous partners are investing in schools and increasing per pupil expenditures, but not using taxpayer dollars.

(5) APS maintains low-population neighborhood schools, which may yield greater per pupil expenditures. Expenditures in APS have been and continue to be driven by efforts to increase student achievement. In 2017, APS is investing $24M in a turnaround strategy for low-performing schools. APS is committed to making students career and college ready, and expects to continue significant investments in order to improve student achievement.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.