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Janresseger: State School Rankings and School Report Cards Drive Racial and Economic Segregation

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind, requires states to provide school report cards as an accountability tool.  The promotional materials from the U.S. Department of Education describe state report cards as a resource for parents—a way to help them know the quality of their child’s school. The report cards must include at least the school’s aggregate standardized test scores, and if the school is a secondary school, its graduation rate. Overall grades are not federally required, but many states now assign overall summative ratings. But instead of a valuable resource about the quality of particular public schools, the report cards and the rankings and ratings that frequently accompany them have become racist dog whistles telling parents just which schools serve homogeneous, privileged student populations. Websites like Zillow publish the school ratings as part of real estate advertising.

Even though they are used these days by policy makers for evaluating the quality of public schools, standardized test scores are known to be a poor yardstick for measuring school quality. And high school graduation rates reflect many factors beyond school quality. Research demonstrates that the report cards and test-based accountability in general simply brand schools in the poorest communities—schools that may be doing a good job—as failures. The damage is made more serious when states assign letter grades—“A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, and “F”.   A school’s poor grade makes it easier for the public to condemn the “F” rated school and the community that surrounds it.  Some states have even begun ranking school districts according to their letter grades. Widespread school funding inequity compounds the problem, as wealthy enclaves can raise adequate funding locally, while the poorest school districts remain dependent on state funding, which has fallen precipitously in many places in the decade since the Great Recession

Furman University education professor and blogger about racial injustice in education, Paul Thomas recently published a critique of South Carolina’s school rankings. Thomas quotes South Carolina newspapers bragging about two top-ranked schools—Academic Magnet High, and the elite Brockman Elementary School.  Here is what Thomas discovered when he did some research: “The South Carolina Department of Education provides for 1270 public schools in the state a Poverty Index;  for 2018, Academic Magnet High is the #1 least impoverished school in the entire state, and Brockman Elementary is #57, placing these two celebrated schools in the top 4.5% of all schools in the state in terms of extremely low poverty as well as disproportionate racial imbalances (Brockman is 75% white and AMH has only 3.5% black enrollment)… These rankings and then the media coverage that perpetuates the rankings mask some powerful and essential facts that if confronted could help drive substantial social and educational reform…. (P)ublic schools are primarily a reflection of the communities they serve; high-poverty communities have high-poverty schools, and both the communities and those schools suffer under enormous burdens related to a wide array of inequities linked to racism and poverty.”

Thomas concludes: “Across the U.S., there are some harsh facts about measurable student outcomes and demographics of students being served.  Race, socioeconomic status, first language and special needs are all highly correlated with those measurable outcomes.  High poverty, majority-minority schools with high percentages of ELL and special needs students have historically low test scores.  Therefore, these rankings and labels such as ‘elite’ are gross misrepresentations of school quality… Continuing to rank schools while also maintaining a disproportionate concern for narrow data (test scores) serves only to misrepresent how well students are learning, how well schools are serving their students, and how our policies and practices are in fact guaranteeing success and failure for children born into privilege or disadvantage through no effort or fault of their own.”

Thomas highlights the same alarming consequence of our society’s reliance standardized-test-based school accountability as the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel discuss in a recent column: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

America’s metropolitan areas have become increasingly segregated by family income in the past half century. In 2013, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon and Cornell University’s Kendra Bischoff released a report, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, which showed that by 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased economic segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income. Reardon and Bischoff add: “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor. “

I wonder how public policies like test-based school accountability and the rating and ranking of schools and school districts have contributed to these trends.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...