How similar is your school to mine?
I recognize that this seems like a fairly complex question to answer but it hasn’t stopped the Department of Education from trying. I believe education officials rely too much on the peer indices they create to cluster schools into peer groups for comparison. The result muddies the accomplishments and challenges of individual schools.
The peer index consists of the following components: students with economic need, weighted 30 percent; students with Individualized Education Plans, weighted 30 percent; students who are Black or Latino, weighted 30 percent; and students who are classified as English Language Learners, weighted 10 percent.
Let us first acknowledge the problematic notion that we can place a proportional value on a child’s need; I hope that you share my distaste for any attempt to quantify how much having a disability or being of a particular racial background influences a child’s educational potential.
But let us also focus on how this questionable methodology leads to the comparison of fairly dissonant educational contexts, and how critical the formulation of these peer groups is to a school’s performance on its progress report. The 40 or so schools with similar composite peer indices are grouped together, and 75 percent of a school’s progress report grade is contingent upon the comparisons drawn between the schools within its given peer group.
In other words, the schools that comprise a peer group matter a whole lot, because much of the progress reports are based off of how a given school’s “results” – namely standardized test scores and learning environment survey responses – compare to the “results” of the other schools in one’s peer group.
Given that my school is located in the heart of Chinatown and serves a largely Chinese-American student population, I had initially assumed that my school’s peer group would consist of nearby Chinatown schools, and perhaps other large schools that were predominantly East Asian American and similarly situated within working class, largely immigrant communities.
However, because the peer indices used to assemble peer groups are considered in the aggregate, and because factors like geographic location, school size, or the racial identities of non-Black and Latino students are literally not part of the equation, the distinctions among schools within each peer group can be quite striking.
Within my school’s group there are nearly twice as many Staten Island schools as there are Manhattan schools; only one other Chinatown school made the list, in addition to schools in places like Park Slope, Bayside, and Tottenville. Now, these are by many accounts wonderful places to live and go to school, but they are not likely to be confused with Chinatown.
More noteworthy is the fact that my school maintains an economic need index that is 160 percent of the peer group average, while our percentage of English Language Learning students is 248 percent of the average. This makes me question how salient a comparison one can draw between a school like mine – where nearly a quarter of the students are labeled English Language Learners and where meeting the needs of these students and their largely non-English speaking parents is one of several overriding instructional concerns – and one particular “peer” school where less than 1 percent of the students are labeled as such.
This is not to say that all schools do not face tremendous challenges in working with the diverse ranges of students and families that they serve. In fact, my point is exactly the opposite: If we recognize that schools are incredibly complex institutions that must attend to an equally complex array of individuals and individual needs, then how accurately can we actually quantify the tangible differences between any two schools? And why must our systems for accountability rely so heavily on comparison as a means of measuring proficiency?
I fully recognize the ongoing need to reflect on and reform my practice to best meet the dynamic needs of my kids. My opposition to an over-reliance on standardized assessments and faulty comparisons does not mean I oppose accountability. It just means there are other numbers that are more important to me.
I am proud of the work my colleagues and I have done this past year to support the learning and growth of our students. According to the most recent learning environment survey, 94 percent of the parents and guardians at my school said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the education that their children received this past year.
And 94 percent is an “A” on my grading scale.