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Georgia's new rating system for school climate. Anyone else puzzled?

I talked to Matt Cardoza at the state Department of Education twice today about the  new school climate ratings.

I'm wondering about the value of these brand new ratings and whether they benefit parents.

But after looking at my district, Decatur City Schools, and DeKalb, it's hard to reconcile some of the ratings.

For example, Decatur High earned three stars, putting it in the average range for school climate. But Decatur's 4th and 5th grade academy -- Fifth Avenue Elementary -- only earned two stars, meaning it fell "below satisfactory." Fifteen percent of schools were rated unsatisfactory or below satisfactory in the first school climate ratings conducted by the state’s Department of Education

Yet, both the high school and the 4/5 academy have strong academic ratings on the state's 100-point scale College and Career Ready Performance Index.

The average high school in Georgia earned a grade this year of 68. Decatur High earned an 87.1. The average elementary school earned a 72.7;  Fifth Avenue has an 87.9.

I was also puzzled by some DeKalb results. For example, the DeKalb Alternative School earned the top rating of five stars/Excellent for school climate, while Chamblee Charter High School earned three stars.

Yet, on the state's academic rankings DeKalb Alternative earned a grade of 33.9 on a scale of 100, while Chamblee posted a grade of 79.8, well above the state average of 68.

Then, I looked at the school attendance data for the two high schools. DeKalb Alternative School has an average daily student attendance of 67.7 percent, while Chamblee has an average daily student attendance of 95.2 percent.

You would expect the school climate grade to relate more to the academic ranking and attendance.

I asked Cardoza to walk me through the ratings for these schools. Let’s start with Decatur’s Fifth Avenue School as a case study on how a high-achieving school earned a dismal 2 stars for school climate:

Parents at Decatur’s Fifth Avenue who completed the school climate survey expressed enough concerns the school only earned 74.4 points out of 100 on the parent portion, said Cardoza.

Then, there was a disparity in how teachers viewed school climate; teachers saw climate in a better light than parents, earning Fifth Avenue 84.4 points out of 100.

So, the Decatur school had a 10-point difference in parent vs. teacher perceptions of climate, which may not seem gaping but leads to a very low score on what the state calls “schoolwide agreement."

For schoolwide agreement, Fifth Avenue earned 42.5 points, lowering the overall school climate score to 67.

Too few students filled out the climate survey – you have to have at least 75 percent – so Fifth Avenue earned no points there. This year, schools were not dinged for low participation on the surveys. Next year they will be.

Fifth Avenue did well in the categories of being drug-free and having little bullying, but lost ground in "violent-free" incidents, which Cardoza said included “disorderly conduct and fighting.”

Now back to DeKalb Alternative. How, I asked DOE, did an alternative high school with low academic performance and daily average attendance of only 67 percent earn five stars for school climate?

DeKalb Alternative School benefited by the reprieve on penalties for low participation in the student, parent and teacher surveys. It did not meet the threshold for student or teacher responses.

If schools have the low participation rates next year on the required surveys, their scores will fall, said Cardoza.

Even though DeKalb Alternative had poor student attendance, it reported high teacher, administrator and staff attendance, said Cardoza. (While we have to encourage teacher and staff attendance, what does it ultimately matter to achievement when a third of the students fail to show up on a daily basis, as is the case with DeKalb Alternative?)

DeKalb Alternative also reported little drugs, fighting or bullying.

Incidents of fighting, drugs and bullying are reported by the schools to their districts and are not verified by DOE.

It is worth noting DeKalb -- a system perceived by the Legislature to be full of unhappy students, parents and teachers and in need of intervention -- did well on these new DOE school climate ratings. Keep in mind these ratings draw heavily on the parent, teacher and student satisfaction surveys.

Twenty-seven DeKalb's schools earned the top five-star rating. The district is up there with Forsyth, which had 23 five-star schools, and Gwinnett, which had 20. Both Gwinnett and Forsyth are recognized as highly successful districts.

I wonder about the validity of the student surveys used to inform these ratings. Are students in schools with strong or frequent bullying prevention programs more likely to report bullying and harassment because they hear about it more often?

If you want to know more, take a look at this DOE PowerPoint.

Here is what DOE had to say officially about the ratings:

The Georgia Department of Education today released its first School Climate Star Ratings. The 2014 ratings are based on survey results and data from the 2013-2014 school year.

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life – the “culture” of a school. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and student learning, which are essential elements for academic success, career-skill improvement and overall quality of life. The School Climate Star Rating helps determine whether a school is on the right path to school improvement.

“Research has shown us that school climate has a strong impact on student achievement,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said. “The data used to develop the 2014 Star Ratings proves this once again. If your school has a positive climate, it’s giving students the environment they need to learn. You’ll likely see high achievement there – or a school that’s on the right track toward high achievement.”

Each school in Georgia received a 1-5 star ratings, with five stars representing an excellent school climate, and one star representing a school climate most in need of improvement. School Climate Star Ratings are an informational tool for schools, administrators, and parents; they do not affect the school’s College & Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) score.

Interpretations of the star ratings are below; this information can also be found in the School Climate Law.

'5-star' schools ranked excellent according to the school climate index;

'4-star' schools ranked above average according to the school climate index;

'3-star' schools ranked average according to the school climate index;

'2-star' schools ranked below satisfactory according to the school climate index, or

'1-star' schools ranked unsatisfactory according to the school climate index.

School Climate Star Ratings are required by law; they also serve as a companion to the Department of Early Care and Learning’s Quality Rated program, which includes an assessment of the learning environment.

“Students cannot learn in environments that do not support them,” Superintendent Woods said. “Georgia is committed to measuring the quality of its learning climates, and this aligned approach helps us assess that quality from preschool all the way through 12th grade.”



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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.