EDITORIAL: Honesty best policy with school rankings

Public school rankings came out last week, and on the surface, the report doesn’t appear to contain much good news. As reported Tuesday by the Review-Journal’s Trevon Milliard, 25 percent of Nevada’s 604 public schools were downgraded by the Nevada School Performance Framework, the second-year, state-created evaluation that replaces federal No Child Left Behind standards.

However, there is an upside to the downgrades. A rating system of this type is an essential part of school accountability, but only if it’s honest. The worst thing we can do to parents and students is tell them their school is better than it actually is. In that regard, the state’s system is certainly better than the one implemented by past Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones, which, in its second year, allowed schools to move up or retain their rankings but prohibited any drop, a smoke screen that excused poor performance.

The state’s new rankings, based on the 2012-13 school year, represent a more accurate assessment, considering how many schools dropped. Statewide, the number of five-star schools dropped from 112 to 82. Mr. Milliard also noted that the number of four- and three-star schools declined, meaning the state added to its list of low-performing schools, from 119 in 2011-12 to 146 in 2012-13, a 23 percent increase.

In Clark County, schools earning four or five stars fell from 118 to 98, and the number of one-star schools doubled — but to just six total. About half of Clark County’s schools got three stars. Given the struggles of campuses with high English Language Learner enrollment and low graduation rates overall, those numbers certainly seem off. But they also magnify the accomplishments of the few schools that improved under the more rigorous evaluation; 41 Clark County schools (12 percent) added at least one star.

The new system, while not perfect, toes the fine line between emphasizing student growth while not penalizing high-achieving schools. If a school has very low achievement, then shows great gains but still is below average, the system would send the wrong message by punishing such a school despite dramatic improvement. At the same time, high-achieving schools don’t have as much room for improvement, so it makes no sense for the system to punish a campus for maintaining existing excellence. The state’s system takes this into account, with a school needing just 77 out of 100 points to gain a five-star rating. Some would argue, and reasonably so, that a school earning 77 is a far cry from a school that rates in the 90s. It’s imperfect, and we’ll have a better idea of whether it amounts to grade inflation in the years ahead.

That’s because ratings likely will continue to drop. On Monday, the Review-Journal launched its Hashtags &Headlines policy luncheon series with a panel discussion on K-12 education in the state of Nevada. Clark County Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky observed that with the implementation of Common Core standards, achievement measurements will be more rigorous. He warned the higher expectations mean achievement likely will get worse before it gets better.

What the rating system already underscores, though, is the importance of the educational reforms Gov. Brian Sandoval is pursuing: a new teacher evaluation system, implementing a merit pay plan, literacy by third grade, ending social promotion and more school choice through expanded magnet programs and charter schools. Money alone isn’t going to fix student achievement.

The state has a long way to go in improving education outcomes in Nevada public schools, but the rating system is a step in the right direction.