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Grading Schools, Failing Schools

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A recent New York Times editorial noting that fewer charter schools were closed in 2011 than in 2010 has called for more charter schools to be shut down if "the movement is to maintain its credibility." In fact, this seems to be a sentiment shared beyond the paper's editorial board; rarely am I in a meeting with charter advocates, foes or those on the fence where the topic of charter school closings doesn't come up. School closings are taken variously as a measure of the vitality of the school reform movement, and as a sign of educators' seriousness of purpose in ensuring that all students receive the best education available. What these conversations often overlook is that closing schools is a decision with far-reaching consequences that shouldn't be undertaken for the credibility of any particular movement, but only as a final measure in support of under-served students.

The difficulty is in figuring out what constitutes a failing school. Under the federal legislation No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools that fall below certain benchmarks in terms of state tests, or in attendance and graduation rates are deemed failing. These schools must adopt an increasingly severe set of measures designed to raise achievement, or risk closing. Driven in part by the tone set by NCLB, local school districts typically use these or even more stringent criteria to determine the success or failure of a school. But despite their wide adoption, it's far from clear that these measures are the best or most informative.

It's no surprise, therefore, that closing schools is an incredibly polarizing process. Chicago's Board of Education has closed traditional, as well as charter public schools, but never without controversy. The recent vote to shutter seven schools faced vociferous opposition that included protests at Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home and the threat of several lawsuits by the Chicago Teachers Union, Local School Councils, and Rev. Jesse Jackson's PUSH operation. Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard defended the closings by saying that Chicago has "not gotten a return on the investment" at these schools. Translation: test scores have not improved. But the measure of a student's achievement can't be determined from the outcome of a test, nor can a school's.

Aggregate student performance on the ACT, for example, is often used to gauge a school's relative success. The argument being made (often by the testing companies themselves) is that the test directly relates to the likelihood of success in college. There is, however, also data similar to that reported in the Washington Post suggesting that not all of the sections of the ACT have equal validity. Another study by the Center for Studies in Higher Education showed that other factors such as high school grades are a better indicator of prospective success in college. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is implying as much by issuing waivers relaxing some of NCLB's benchmarks. In my experience, standardized tests aren't the best predictor of college success, they are just the most expedient.

If we really want to get serious about determining how good a school is, we should look to how well the school is fulfilling its (or the school district's) mission and developing the students who attend the school, neither of which necessarily have anything to do with test scores. If the school district wants to make sure that graduates are "college ready," then part of the evaluation process has to be whether or not students are admitted to, enroll in, persist at, and graduate from college.

A few schools have adopted such standards in their own evaluations. For example, KIPP, a national network of charter public schools, has given itself a goal of 75 percent college completion for its graduates, and though their first cohorts have fallen short of this mark, they've still managed to earn college degrees at a rate four times that of comparable students outside the program. Yet college completion (or even enrollment) data isn't part of the current NCLB metrics or the evaluation criteria for most school districts around the country. In Chicago, out of the eleven rating categories used on the High School Performance Policy Reports, seven are related to standardized tests and none look at college enrollment, college persistence, or college completion rates. And this in a school district that has set college and career readiness as a city-wide standard for high schools.

With clearly defined goals and outcome-oriented benchmarks, we would be able say definitively whether or not specific schools are improving, and what steps might be put in place to support those that are not. We need to move past the point where closing schools in and of itself is seen as a measure of progress. Failing schools should close, but only if absolutely necessary and only if they are being graded by the right standards. To allow other factors to intrude would mean schools aren't failing students, we're failing schools.

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