NAEP 2022: The final insult of state school rating systems?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress will soon release 2022 national long-term trend results followed by state level results later in the fall. This data will establish the scale of academic damage suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I suspect the data also will reveal which states effectively rate their schools on a curve. Color me concerned that multiple states will have a relatively unchanged distribution of “highly performing” or A-rated schools despite having students that have suffered substantial academic setbacks.

If this comes to pass, it should be the final insult of a misbegotten effort of governments to rate the performance of government schools. The task of rating schools should be left to private organizations.

The process of rating schools is inherently subjective and political. No Child Left Behind required states to adopt state academic standards, test public school students against those standards in grades 3-8 and once in high-school, and to rate schools based upon performance on those tests.

Requiring states to do something is hardly the same as requiring them to do something well. States promptly adopted everything from super-easy exams to very opaque school labels.

Florida, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, managed to adopt clear A-F school grades and to incentivize the academic progress of low-performing students in their funding formula. The initial grades had more D/F grades than A/B grades.

Based on Florida’s NAEP scores at the time, this was entirely justified. Crucially, Florida’s NAEP scores, which are external to state testing systems. improved. School grading probably deserves some credit for Florida’s NAEP improvement.

Florida has a great story to tell, but years later, the state appears to be a bit like Michael Jordan attempting to be a high school basketball coach: “Okay, men, what I want you do is take flight from the free-throw line and dunk the ball in a way that will humiliate the other team!”

I helped advocate for an A-F school grading system in my home state of Arizona. We have not been able to dunk from the free-throw line. On the plus side, the state’s previous system of vague descriptors was a complete waste of time.

Unfortunately, our state adopted a hopelessly complicated rating system that has not always made sense, and which has been repeatedly turned on and turned back off for a variety of reasons. School grades seem to be an obsession for people who run schools, but the public seems broadly unconcerned.

Private school rating platforms like Greatschools and Niche fortunately have their own systems to rate schools, collect community ratings of schools, and have internet traffic which dwarf those of the Arizona Department of Education. These platforms don’t take years off every time the state changes exams, they soldier on. Families have more confidence in non-profit ratings than government ratings and they value reviews.

If Dianne Ravitch would like to create and hand out trophies for all district schools, she is welcome to do so – First Amendment free speech and all. I’d prefer not to have state authorities handing out trophies for all.

The most robust form of accountability involves voting with your feet, and the private platforms have been taking the lead in informing these decisions for decades now. Government has been rating government; non-government rating the efforts of government in a pluralistic fashion is a superior practice for Political Science 101 reasons.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.