Another Broken Promise? District Backs Away From School Rating System To Help Parents Evaluate Schools


Speak UP sat down with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner to discuss the status of a school rating system that the board voted 6-1 last April to create. LAUSD spent a year developing the School Performance Framework with input from stakeholders, and the new system was tested and slated to launch in October. Beutner, however, is now backing away from that promise, despite the fact that the Advisory Task Force he chaired before he was named superintendent called for the creation of a school report card.   

Speak UP: You’ve been talking about increasing transparency and continuity and trust in LAUSD. The board passed a resolution, almost unanimously, directing the district to create a School Performance Framework with a single summative school rating to give parents clear, easy-to-understand information about how their schools are performing. The point was to identify which schools need more support and to help parents make the best choices. The Los Angeles Times recently suggested that you are trying to back away from that promise.

Beutner: First of all, this was passed before I got here. And there are two parts to this exercise. There is providing more information about what is actually happening with the school. We will continue to do that. I will give you an example: Change versus growth. The State Dashboard will show us for a school what the performance was for students in that school one year to the next year on the state math test. But for children who enter our kindergarten, about half will be at a different school by fifth grade. We serve a population that is inordinately transient. So comparing school to school, when school needs are different, when the cohort of students in each school is different, isn't the right approach.

We think it's growth. We think it's looking at the students themselves. We're not going to identify anything publicly about a particular classroom or grade. It's going to be the school. But we need to be looking at growth. That's very valuable. And that also takes into account the place students start, the factors from their community that they bring into the classroom. So it's an apple-to-apple comparison. Part of that board initiative was to do that. We're doing that. It sounds simple. It's harder than you think. We've been doing that work.

I believe that is entirely separable from a single alphanumeric or summative rating. You know, the state has its own color scheme. Maybe we stay with the state color scheme, maybe we do something different. But the actual summative thing? What does a star do? Does a star take into account that one school might have an elementary population that 80% of kids are transient, not finishing at the same school? Another might have 25%. How does a star take that into account? I'm not quite sure. Does the label help us achieve our goal? Or does the label just label something that they already know? We sort of cast winners and losers before we can do the work.

I want to make sure every school community is as informed as possible. I want to make sure those working in the school know all of the information that we can know, that we can provide. So growth, for instance. English Learners, we had a record year, last year, helping students become proficient [in English]. But there's a lot more to know. Two or three years before, did we get an influx of high school newcomers? Or second-graders proficient in another language before they came? Two different paths they’d each be on. Separable from the stars.  

Speak UP: But the board was very clear that schools should have a single summative rating. You’ve been talking about consistency and transparency. This sounds like more of a broken promise to parents. Stakeholders have been working on this system for a year. You said the board voted before you arrived. That sounds like things change politically. We never finish what we start because there's no consistency and follow through. There’s always a revolving door. Doesn’t that erode trust?

Beutner: I think far and away, the most important thing is to find more information about a school. That should be our obligation and commitment to families, whether it's stars, colors, numbers. The state has a certain approach. Maybe we stay with that approach.

Speak UP: Parents don't use the State Dashboard because it’s too complex. They use LAUSD is not operating in a vacuum. We already have a system developed by outsiders that has a single summative school rating, a number from 1-10. So, the choice for parents is between continuing to rely on an outside group or something that the district spent a year developing with all of the stakeholder input.   

Beutner: Outsiders can do whatever they wish to do with the information. I'm trying to make sure that whatever system is used for a summative approach, that we have a better set of information, more complete than the set of information about the students we serve, the communities we serve and what's actually happening at school. 

Speak UP: Why can't you do both? If you don't make it simple and have a clear rating, parents will ignore it. To help a parent choose the best school for their child and to know how their school is doing compared to other schools, it helps to have a clear rating system. That’s what the board passed. It sounds like you’re trying to reverse what the board directed the district to do.

Beutner: We're not done with the work. Until we have the information and we put that forward in plain language that people can understand…Part of the inadequacies of the State Dashboard is school systems speak in a different language. They speak to themselves. So, we have a big plain language initiative.

You may look at your child's alphanumeric score, and that may be enough for you. I always read the comments. I put my thumb right over the alphanumeric [grade], and I say, “Is she paying attention, is she doing her homework, is she a critical thinker? Where are her opportunities to grow?” We're not doing that. We’ve got to do that first well. Then let’s have this conversation about what that leads to. We're still a month or two away from being able to do that in a better way than we have been. I think there are clear limitations in the State Dashboard. Colors, stars, numbers -- until we can think of it in terms of a good report card for a student, which really explains where the opportunities are for that student to grow, or that school, if the metaphor's here. We'll come back. We'll have that conversation.   

Speak UP: We do both on a student report card, so why not do both on the school report card? You might look at comments first about your child, but there’s also a number or a letter grade. Because we need to know how they’re doing in terms of objective standards and expectations and in comparison to the other students. Those things are important, and colleges look at those things when they evaluate prospective students. Colleges don’t just consider essays and recommendations from teachers. They look at grades and scores, too.

Beutner:  The information it is founded on has to be the focus first. We can have this conversation about these summative [school ratings] in another month or two when that other piece is in place.

Speak UP: Are you rolling it out in October before the eChoices deadline? Is that still the plan?

Beutner: We're working on it feverishly and will see what we have.  

Speak UP: KPCC’s Kyle Stokes recently tweeted about a similar situation in Indiana where they tested a school rating system and found that some of the schools that they had always celebrated as high performing didn't do so well with their formula, so they changed the formula. I know you guys have been testing the system. Was there a similar situation here, with some coveted magnet or wealthy neighborhood schools not looking quite as good under this metric, and so principals started pushing back? Did results from testing the system influence your attempts to shift this?

Beutner:  I think you're a step ahead and seeing ghosts that may not exist yet. I'm not prejudging the outcome. The state has been changing its rules, so we need SBAC test results from the most recent period so we can start to see valid measures of growth. Until we see that, we're going to come back and revisit the question. I don't know whether that means good, bad or different for what perceptions might have been about schools before.

Note: After this story was published, LAUSD Board Vice President Jackie Goldberg introduced a resolution to entirely eliminate the new school rating system and deprive parents of district data on student growth and school performance.

 -- Jenny Hontz and Esmeralda Fabian

This is part two of a three-part interview Speak UP conducted with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner last week. Part one can be found here and part three here.