November 20 2012

Beware of Feds Bearing Blue Ribbons

Vicki E. Alger

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Education Department’s National Blue Ribbon Schools Program. Since the program started in 182, almost 7,000 schools have been named Blue Ribbon Schools.

This year, 219 public and 50 private schools are being recognized for “their overall academic excellence, or for making progress in improving student academic achievement levels.”

Great schools deserve to be recognized—and more students should be able to attend exemplary schools; however, parents should not be misled into assuming that a blue ribbon from the federal government means a school is top notch. An IWF Blue Ribbon School analysis found that:

On average, just 11 percent of students at those 2007 Blue Ribbon public schools came from impoverished backgrounds, three percent of students were classified with limited English proficiency (LEP), and only eight percent of students had disabilities. The median home value in the schools’ neighborhoods exceeded $300,000 on average, and the median family income approached $100,000. Yet at one in three of those Blue-Ribbon schools, at least 25 percent of students in at least one grade were not proficient in at least one core subject tested.

Why? States have many ways to mislead parents and the public about actual student and school performance under current federal mandates. Improvements include:

#1 Publicize Grade-Level Proficiency Results. School-wide performance averages tell parents little about what matters most: how well students in their own children’s grades are doing.

#2 Report State Proficiency Results Alongside Nationally-Representative Results. Parents need to know how their child and their school’s performance compare nationally. Given the current and likely growing propensity of states to water down proficiency standards as the 2014 100 percent student proficiency deadline approaches, states should be required to post their annual NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card) proficiency results alongside their state grade-level proficiency results.

#3 Post Required Passing Scores with Proficiency Scores. Evidence is growing that proficiency gains in recent years have less to do with improved student learning and more to do with states lowering the number of questions students must answer correctly to be considered proficient. Yet around 40 percent of states do not make this information readily available to the public by posting it online.

The best accountability assurance of all—better than any blue ribbon—is for the U.S. Department of Education to provide parents with information that is both accurate and actionable, then enforce their children’s right of exit from underperforming schools.

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