One of the toughest questions in education is: How do you rate and rank school quality?
Going only by raw test scores often ends up simply ranking schools by rates of poverty, special education disability and English fluency.
The School District of Philadelphia’s metric attempts a more nuanced look, but this year it may raise more questions than answers.
During a celebration ceremony at Anne Frank Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia Thursday, Superintendent William Hite praised the district and charter schools that ranked highest this year on the School Progress Report.
“What we’re doing is celebrating … the top performers, those schools that are leading the way,” said Hite.
The SPR metric ranks schools two ways. First, against every public school serving the same age bracket. And second, against peer schools that share similar demographics in poverty, special education disability, race, and English fluency.
City leaders were no surprise: Central High School, Julia Masterman Middle School, Penn Alexander K-8 elementary, and Anne Frank K-5 Elementary (which has earned top honors three years straight).
The “peer leader” grouping showcased those that aren’t as often heralded.
In the K-5 or 6 category, Samuel Powel Elementary, Rhawnhurst Elementary, and Mastery Charter School at Smedley Elementary ranked highest in their peer groups.
Of K-8 schools, Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary, Christopher Columbus Charter School, Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, Laboratory Charter School of Communication and Languages, Universal Creighton Charter School, and Universal Institute Charter School took top honors in thier peer groups.
Hill-Freedman World Academy and Memphis Street Academy Charter School at J.P. Jones scored best in the middle school peer groups.
Of high school peer groups, Academy at Palumbo, Bodine High School for International Affairs, Carver High School for Engineering and Science, and Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School received recognition.
Three of the district’s renaissance charter schools appear in this list. Mastery Smedley, Memphis Street Academy, and Universal Creighton had each been low-performing district schools that were converted to neighborhood-based charters.
Hite also specifically recognized Paul Robeson and Constitution high schools for having the highest four-year graduation rates among non-special admission schools.
Robeson narrowly avoided closure in 2013 after faculty and students pushed back against the district’s plans.
William M. Meredith Elementary was recognized for having the highest percentage of K-2 students reading on grade-level districtwide.
Ninety percent of the city’s charter schools participated in the district’s rating system.
Although much of the ceremony was focused on bright spots, Hite emphasized that four of five schools citywide – both district and charter – fall into the lower rating tiers.
“We have to do something to provide for those children a very different experience,” said Hite.
Digging deeper into SPR
Although the SPR relies on state tests less than the state’s School Performance Profile metric, it still shows a very strong correlation between student demographics and outcomes.
“Economically disadvantaged … is by far the strongest indicator or predictor of student outcomes on the SPR,” said Jura Chung, the district’s chief performance officer.
One of the ways SPR attempts to look beyond demographics is by placing its highest premium on student improvement.
The district measures improvement using the state’s “value added” metric, PVAAS, which tracks year-to-year student performance on state standardized tests as compared with peers.
Complicating this, though, is that the state tests became much more difficult between this year and last.
So the “progress” in this year’s SPR is all over the map, and some of the results are raising eyebrows.
One example: Last spring, the School Reform Commission recommended closing Universal Bluford Elementary for poor performance.
But now, the SPR ranks it highly. Its test scores are still extremely low, but it showed enough improvement to rank 9 of 59 overall in its age bracket.
Another example: Masterman High School, a second-tier school according to SPR, was labelled a “watch” for “progress” – falling to 10 of 10 in its peer group for that category.
So is there reason to be wary of how SPR ranked schools this year?
“No. I think we’ve always had an overweight on growth,” said Chung. “That’s intentional because that’s how we’re leveling the playing field.”
Chung added that the added rigor of the state tests did present “noise” in the data because “it’s an adjustment year.”
High stakes closures, conversions on the line
Chung, though, still expects district leaders and the SRC to take the new SPR data into account to make high stakes decisions.
“It might tell us something else about the most recent year that the prior SPR did not,” she said.
Hite has proposed converting three elementary schools into neighborhood-based charters this year: John Wister in Germantown, Jay Cooke in Logan, and Samuel Huey in West Philadelphia.
Wister saw a large jump in “progress,” and was rated 29 out of 59 in its citywide group. It scored 10 out of 20 in its peer group.
Cooke’s “progress” score rose slightly. Its rankings in “achievement” and “climate” fell. It was rated 135 of 140 in its citywide group and last in its peer group.
Huey saw “climate” ratings rise slightly, “progress” flatline, and “achievement” drop. Overall, it rated 99 of 140 in its city group, and 21 of 46 in its peer group.
Hite also seeks to close Morris Leeds and Dimner Beeber middle schools.
Leeds rated 16 of 36 city middle schools, and 8 of 19 in its peer group – seeing its biggest leaps in “progress.”
The SPR metric ranked Beeber 35 of 36 in the citywide group and 19 of 19 in its peer group.
In an interview after the event, the city’s new chief education officer, Otis Hackney, said he hoped SPR wouldn’t be viewed as the final word on school quality.
“This is a snapshot of a school, but it’s not the full picture,” said Hackney, who until recently was principal of South Philadelphia High School, where his leadership has been widely praised.
He said some schools are strong despite low SPR scores, a metric he didn’t think could capture the obstacles the city’s most disadvantaged schools face.
Southern was rated 81 of 82 high schools in the city and 12 of 12 in its peer group.
“Their SPR score may not be great, but does that mean that the school is not performing at the highest level?” he asked.
Hackney’s boss, newly sworn-in Mayor Jim Kenney, who pledged to visit a public school each week of his term, emphasized a similar point.
“Often our children get to kindergarten and first grade and they’re not prepared,” said Kenney. “And now the teachers have to continue to try to drag the child forward when it’s almost an impossible thing to do.”