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Should Minnesota grade its schools?

Of data dashboards and summative simplifications.

Opponents of giving schools a single rating say that those ratings oversimplify how schools serve kids, make it easy to gloss over differences in how various groups fare at schools and fail to capture the things that families are really looking for in public schools.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

When it comes to providing parents with information about the quality of public schools, how simple is too simple?

A bill at the Minnesota Legislature would require the state department of education to create a grading system for Minnesota’s schools, assigning each school an overall score to give parents an idea of the quality of the school. These types of ratings, known as summative scores, are already available from private groups like the website GreatSchools.

That’s not how Minnesota currently provides information to parents about schools. The state’s school report cards show a snapshot of several metrics — state test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates, and others — with the ability to access more detailed information, and information for specific subgroups like racial groups or English Language Learners. The state system presents the data, but it’s up to parents to decide which numbers are important to them.

Advocates for creating a single grading system in Minnesota argue that it’s too difficult for parents to parse all that educational data. “I’ve heard loud and clearly from many families that they are in support of this bill for the main reason of having something that’s simple, easy to understand, and gives them a starting point on making a best decision for their kids,” Rashad Turner, with the education-reform organization Minnesota Comeback, told an education committee last month.

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But not everyone agrees that simpler is better — opponents of giving schools a single rating say that those ratings oversimplify how schools serve kids, make it easy to gloss over differences in how various groups fare at schools and fail to capture the things that families are really looking for in schools.

One rating to rule them all

What would a single-metric score look like? Summative scores for Minnesota schools are already available from websites like GreatSchools and Niche.

Imagine you’re looking at high schools in Minneapolis. Here are the scores from GreatSchools:

The summary scores for schools in this view range from 1/10 (below average) to 9/10 (above average). To determine these ratings for high schools, GreatSchools claims to use state test scores (determines 24 percent of the overall score), college readiness (via college entrance exam participation and graduation rates, 50 percent), advanced course participation (12 percent) and equity ratings (14 percent). For elementary schools, ratings are based on student progress (25 percent), equity (28 percent), and test scores (47 percent). The site also looks at other factors. More on the methodology can be found here.

Edison High School, a school in Northeast Minneapolis where 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and 27 percent of students are English learners, gets a 1/10 on GreatSchools’ rating, with a score of one or two in several categories:

Clicking on each of the categories shows some of the data that go into the rating. For example, college readiness:

GreatSchools also has space for users of the site to leave comments.

The bill before the Legislature asks the Department of Education to come up with its own summative scoring system, so they might choose to emphasize different data points and give them different weights in the overall score.

As of last April, 45 states either used summative ratings or planned to use them, according to EdAllies, a Minnesota school-reform nonprofit that supports creating a summative system.

Proponents of a system like this would say making summary-level information about Edison and other schools available gives parents a starting point from which to dive into the more detailed information.

Missing the trees for the forest

Simple, right? But to opponents of using summative scores, GreatSchools’ 10 point scoring system is far too simple, and misses information that might actually be really important to parents.

Going back to Minneapolis’ Edison High, with it’s 1/10 GreatSchools rating: how do English language learners do at the school? That information isn’t available from GreatSchools, but state data show that 45 percent of English language learners at Edison are meeting their learning goals — above the district average and a little below the state’s. At Minneapolis’ Southwest High — a school that GreatSchools rates a 6/10 — the rate is just 36 percent.

You can find the information about English language learners on the state’s existing report card website, though you have to look around for it.

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Critics of summative scores like the one GreatSchools uses argue that the harm of such scores goes beyond obscuring information. GreatSchools scores are displayed on the real estate site Zillow, potentially influencing where families — especially those with enough resources to have options — choose to move. That could have the effect of concentrating poorer students in lower-performing schools.

Overall, the state’s dashboard presents much of the same data as GreatSchools, it just avoids summarizing or making judgments about it:

Source: Minnesota Department of Education
Some committee testifiers said this provides parents more nuanced, high-quality information.

Others say the site is disorganized and doesn’t help parents make sense of the numbers. Comparing multiple schools requires digesting several screens of data.

“The dashboard is confusing. If the school is in the bottom 5 percent, most parents don’t know,” said Khulia Pringle, a parent and family advocate, in committee. “I think a one through five, A through F, or 0 to 100 rating system will give parents an easier way of understanding the data.”

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Of course, any data-driven system necessarily only gives a partial picture of a school.

Parent polling suggests what they’re looking for from schools is yes, academics, said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies school ratings and does not believe summative ratings capture schools ‘ ability to educate children well. But parents also care about critical thinking, creative inquiry, citizenship skills, artistic and creative skills, social and emotional wellbeing, student safety and school culture, among other things, some of which Schneider argues states should try to capture in school performance data.

“It’s a broad range of stuff that is not even remotely measured by a graduation rate or an average,” he said.