Rhode Island’s system for rating school quality by assigning them between one and five stars is fundamentally flawed. Why? It holds white affluent schools to a lower standard than schools that serve high numbers of low-income English language learners. One of the categories on which schools are judged only applies to some schools and they aren’t the ones in the most cost-prohibitive leafy green suburbs or the only Providence school that requires an exam in order to be admitted. Schools that do not serve a significant number of low- income students, nonwhite students or students with limited English proficiency automatically get a pass—they earn overall ratings of 4 and 5 stars despite never having to prove that they can successfully serve higher need populations. Does it make sense to celebrate that?
We need to ask ourselves if the performance on a single test taken by a small slice of the student body should determine that school’s overall rating. The fact that the performance of one subgroup of students on one English fluency exam—regardless of when they arrived to this country—can determine a school’s overall star rating seems excessive. Not only are we grading entire schools on an assessment that only a fraction of the students take but we are then holding them up against schools that, by nature of their demographic make-up, have zero students who take the same test. Barrington High School and Classical High School in Providence have never shown a shred of evidence that they serve English learners well because they’ve never had to—but they still earn 5 stars.
Without getting too far into the weeds, it is important to understand that in order for a school’s accountability rating to be affected by their score in a specific category, they need to have at least 20 students in that category. North Kingstown High School has approximately 1,500 students—91percent are white and 16 percent are low income. Black students make up 1 percent and Hispanic students make up 3 percent of the total student body. 18 students at North Kingstown High School took the English language proficiency or ACCESS test—even though only 44% met their target for growth in English proficiency, their star rating is unaffected because fewer than 20 students took the test. If the performance of those 18 students were to impact their overall rating, they would fall from a four star school to a 2 school star school. Their lack of diversity means they are held to a lower number of proof points and therefore, a lower accountability standard. Notice that the English Language Proficiency column is blank.
North Kingstown High School’s accountability report card:
Meanwhile, Blackstone Valley Prep High School, a charter school that serves students from Cumberland, Lincoln, Central Falls and Pawtucket, has more than twenty students with limited English proficiency who must take the ACCESS test. And since not enough students showed the growth needed to get more than two stars in that category, the school earned an overall rating of two stars even though it had much stronger results in every other category.
BVP High School’s accountability report card:
And to further illustrate the point of how misleading these ratings can be, let’s look at another school that, like BVP HS, also earned an overall rating of 2 stars—Central Falls High School.
Central Falls High School accountability report card:
Can anyone at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) or at the statehouse make the case that these two schools should have earned the same overall rating? As a parent looking at this, it seems like it has to be a mistake. But it is not a mistake—the rating system is functioning precisely as it was designed. And that is a problem.
The 5 star schools are mostly white and affluent and not a single one has enough students with limited English proficiency for this flaw in the system to impact their star rating. They are also far less likely to have additional subgroups based on race and income because their non-white, low income populations are so small. In a perverse way, the rating system actually incentivizes communities to continue to stay out of compliance with affordable housing mandates in order to keep their communities more homogeneous, thereby avoiding the very hard work done by the schools that serve a far more diverse population of students. If we are being brutally honest, the system’s design encourages segregation.
Elected officials love to brag about their five star schools and realtors love to use them as a selling point—there is no incentive for these communities to risk losing their five star status by adding more English language learners to the mix. Because a school’s overall rating is their lowest category score, North Kingstown would have been rated a 2 star school if just two more English language learners had taken the English proficiency test. Instead, they earned four stars overall.
In order to fully understand why the accountability system is biased, it is important to compare the average demographics of the 5 star schools and the 1 star schools.
Of the twenty two 5 star schools in RI, on average:
16 percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
18 percent are non-white.
1.4 percent are limited English proficient.
Of the thirty-five 1 star schools, on average:
81 percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunch
81 percent are non-white
22 percent are limited English proficient.
None of this is to imply that we shouldn’t be holding schools with higher need populations to high expectations or that we don’t need to serve our English language learners better than we currently are—on the contrary, we must. But we also shouldn’t be holding schools to a ridiculous standard and then allowing it to have an outsized impact on their overall rating.
For example, under the current system, if a student who arrives to a Rhode Island school from Colombia at the beginning of 11th grade, does not test as “fully fluent” in English by the time he or she graduates, the school is penalized in its star rating. That is an absurd standard.
If the goal of the star rating system is to drive up real estate values in Barrington and confirm for parents on the East Side of Providence that Classical High School was a smart choice for their children, mission accomplished. But if the goal is to truly inform parents and the community at large about how a school is actually doing overall, then the system is fundamentally flawed.