Guest column: 'Underachieving' Ames High? The criteria seem questionable. – Ames Tribune

Recently U.S. News and World Report released its 2022 list of outstanding high schools across the United States, reported annually. High schools are evaluated based on Advanced Placement enrollments and testing, college and workforce readiness, graduation rate, state assessments and other relevant criteria.  Out of 24,000 public high schools in the U.S., Ames High ranked number 1,210, placing AHS in the top 5% of public high schools nationwide.  U.S. News and World Report also provides state-by-state rankings, and AHS was ranked fourth out of 313 ranked high schools in Iowa.  
While any given ranking or evaluation system of schools may have flaws, so too does the ranking system used by the Iowa Department of Education in its evaluation of Iowa schools. AHS was recently identified as an “underachieving” high school and thus will be the beneficiary of state aid in the form of consultation services provided by the AEA along with financial assistance and the requirement to develop improvement plans that align to the state-identified shortcomings. 
It is puzzling to me, and I assume to the general public, how such a highly ranked high school is also identified as failing by local officials. It requires some digging into the criteria by which the Iowa Department of Education’s evaluates Iowa high schools. It appears that the greatest weight in the state’s evaluation system is given to scores on state assessments, broken down by subgroups within the student population. The subgroups include race, ethnicity, gender, English language learners and students with disabilities. 
On the surface, those seem like relevant criteria in the overall evaluation of the high school program (and I am certain that the staff of AHS is well aware of the student gaps without the need to rely on state assessment scores to identify them). However, the flaw in the state’s evaluation system is its failure to recognize that two of the student subgroups — English language learners and students with disabilities — are dynamic in nature. Students enter and leave these subgroups based on their proficiency. When students have met their achievement goals they are exited from the subgroup, to be replaced, in a sense, by other, non-proficient students.  In other words, the only students who should ever be a part of these two subgroups are students who are not proficient in some aspect of the educational program and are thus identified as needing additional services provided by the school. 
Schools are also rewarded or penalized based on the percent of students who participate in a voluntary student survey.  Because fewer than 50% of AHS students took the survey, they received a “0” in the rating system.  Consequently, this affected their overall evaluation negatively. It seems fair to question why student survey participation rate has any impact on an overall evaluation of a school or district. Perhaps students simply don’t find it relevant or worthwhile. Nevertheless, AHS staff will be charged with developing improvement plans around criteria that are flawed from the beginning.
Managing a large, comprehensive high school program is a complex and difficult task. To add more busywork to the assignments of staffs, administrators and volunteer committees only takes away from the important work they are already doing to ensure that all students succeed and are ready for college or the workforce. It is important to have ongoing, critical examination of student performance in any school or district; however, it needs to be based on systems and data that accurately depict students’ progress and help schools to focus on real targets for improvement.
Nancy Rasmusson is a retired educator living in Nevada.


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