COLUMN: Ratings confuse you? Just wait

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Good news for those of you who think determining the quality of your school is just too darned easy.

It’s probably about to get more complicated.

A state focus group has recommended that the Texas Education Agency add three new school ratings, starting this fall: Exemplary Commended, Recognized Commended, and Academically Acceptable Commended.

Those would join: the four major existing ratings (Exemplary, Recognized, Academically Acceptable, Academically Unacceptable); the Data Integrity Issues rating for schools potentially on the make; the separate-but-equal Alternative Education Accountability system; the Adequate Yearly Progress system the feds require (including its more heavy-duty Needs Improvement tag); the 14 Gold Performance Acknowledgements the state gives out (for things like SAT scores and attendance rates); all the different honor rolls and five-star schools lists promoted by various groups; and a TAKS-taking partridge in a pear tree.

(Deep breath.)

It almost makes you hearken back to the traditional way of evaluating a Texas school’s quality: the record of its football team.

I don’t mean to pick on the new proposed ratings. They’re designed to give schools with middling test scores some credit if they still have a decent number of high-performing students. Say Jones Elementary can only manage an Academically Acceptable rating. Under the new ratings system, if it has 50 really smart kids buried within those mediocre test scores, it might earn the spiffier-sounding Academically Acceptable Commended label.

But they’re part of a troubling trend over the past decade: the ever-growing complexity of how we rate schools.

Back in the 1990s, the school ratings system was blessedly simple. Only two subjects mattered, math and reading. All schools had to do was get as many of its kids to pass the old TAAS test as possible. If a school’s passing rate could exceed certain nice, round numbers, it would get a nice rating. There were certainly ways to game the system, but for the most part, it was easy to understand.

That’s important. The Texas school ratings system is primarily a shaming device. Schools with great test scores (generally) don’t get any more money than schools with mediocre ones. A good rating looks nice on the school letterhead, and it makes parents and staff happy. But it doesn’t have much direct, concrete impact on a campus.

That means the system’s power rests in its ability to get teachers and staff to buy in to it. If people don’t believe in a system, it fails.

First came the federal system created by No Child Left Behind. It uses different standards to separate the good from the bad than the state does. So a school can be rated highly in one system and not in the other.

And over time, the state system has added more tests in more subjects. Special rules have been created for certain grade levels. There are new score-calculation formulas to worry about, and new variables like “required improvement” and “exceptions.” The treatment of special-education students has become downright baroque; folks in Austin are now talking about there being five distinct state tests for them.

Some of the changes are good; all (or nearly all) were certainly well intentioned. But they all make the system more confusing to the people who need to buy into it: parents and educators. Complexity creates tension, anxiety and pressure. And when people are confused by a system, they’re tempted to reject it entirely.

A study of 401(k) plans a few years back found that the more investment options a company’s plan offered, the less likely employees were to actually sign up in the first place. That meant turning down free matching money from employers.

Confronted with a complex system, people freeze.

You’re seeing a similar phenomenon in higher education. U.S. News & World Report ranks the “best colleges” each year, using a complicated, black-box formula to invent pointless distinctions. (As if Yale, Harvard, and Princeton measurably swap positions every few months.) In the last few years, angry colleges have begun to push back, even talking about purposefully sabotaging the data U.S. News uses in its formula.

Confronted with a system they consider confusing and unfair, they’re rebelling.

We haven’t seen a large-scale rebellion yet in Texas. But the current legislative session has featured far more rumbling about the testing system than usual.

It’s looking as if legislators are ready to toss out the current TAKS graduation test and replace it with something more easily understandable – tests in May that cover what high school kids have learned over the past year. If that happens, officials will have to figure out some new way to rate schools.

That process will never be easy, or without controversy. But there’s a reason no management guru advises: “Keep It Complicated, Stupid.”