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State's performance ratings for schools have value ... but it's all relative

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How area schools fared

Northwest Allen County Schools: 7 A's, 2 B's, 1 D for Arcola Elementary

Southwest Allen County Schools: 4 A's and 5 B's

Fort Wayne Community Schools: 14 A's, 6 B's, 19 C's, 8 D's and 1 F for Harrison Hill Elementary

East Allen County Schools: 2 A's, 3 B's, 8 C's and 2 D's for Paul Harding Junior High and New Haven Middle School. EACS turned the former Harding High School into an early college magnet program now called Paul Harding Junior High School.

Thursday, November 1, 2012 - 9:34 am

On Wednesday, the Indiana Department of Education released its student performance assessments for schools and districts, based on a scale of A-F.

A little more than a year ago, Fort Wayne Community Schools received an “A” in these ratings. This year, with the ratings formula adjusted a few ways, the district was rated a “C.” Of the 49 schools in FWCS rated by the state, there were 14 A's, 7 B's, 19 C's, 8 D's and 1 F for Harrison Hill Elementary.

The grading scale, according to the state, “holds schools and corporations to higher standards and provides a more accurate picture of their performance by incorporating student academic growth and graduation rates, as well as college and career readiness, as measures of success.”

OK, then. That's a mouthful, but that's fine -- the concept of performance standards, of measuring growth, has to be part of any conversation about education. No student goes to class, takes tests or does homework, and doesn't get assessed. At some point, parents and the community have to have some feel for how a school or district is performing.

That being said, if I were a parent of a child being educated in any type of school model, whether it be public school, private, parochial or charter, there's only one question I would ask on any given day.

That question: “How is my kid doing?”

And the answer I would be looking for wouldn't necessarily be contained in those ratings, as defined by the state.

I would argue that we are in a dangerous place with regard to the perception of education. The obvious desire of adults to ensure that the educational needs of children are being met is laudable. Society requires its members to be able to think, to process information, to learn. That doesn't happen without schools, without teachers, without an educational system.

But at the same time, using my non-existent child as an example, it's completely irrelevant if Little Johnny is going to the best school ever created and staffed…and failing every class while not learning or retaining a single thing that he's been taught. It doesn't matter if my kid is surrounded by children who are breaking down “War and Peace” during study hall…but my kid can barely read, and teachers don't know that or don't care.

During a Wednesday media availability -- and, to expand it further, over the last few months -- I, as a journalist, have heard things that I consider to be relevant from FWCS board president Mark GiaQuinta and Wendy Robinson, the district superintendent. The district administration is monitoring the performance of its member schools. They are aware that there is an expectation from the community that the district's leadership will address concerns about performance -- not just swiftly and decisively, but fairly, with regard to the specific challenges that each member school faces.

They are aware that the community prefers that they are transparent in their efforts, that they take the time to explain what they're doing with regard to spending and building projects. FWCS' leadership appears to be aware that people want to know what is happening -- no matter whether those reports would be termed “positive” or “negative.”

Board meetings are televised and open to the public. Parents are allowed to choose where their students attend school. The district, as a whole, has seen steady gains on its ISTEP+ testing over the last four years.

Those are all positive things, and that should not be minimized. In a perfect world, every single school would be rated an “A” AND every single student would be as gifted and well-educated as Albert Einstein. But this isn't Utopia. That's not realistic. It's not going to happen. It's also not to be expected that every policy that is set, every decision that is made, is going to be popular with every single person affected.

What the community has a right to expect is knowing what is realistic. What is being done. What standards are set. So when a parent asks that fundamental question, “How is my kid doing?” the answer is something they can understand and make a determination about what they want to do next.

When it comes to rating schools, determining quality of education and effectiveness of teachers and administrators, everything should be considered. Standards have to be agreed upon and set. But that doesn't mean that every metric or rating is relevant for every situation.

FWCS got an “A” rating last year. It got a “C” this year. Those ratings have some value, but they are not the only thing that matters.

What matters most: How your kid is doing. Parents, teachers, administrators and students have to be willing to listen, learn and act, in response to that question. If that happens, when it happens, there will likely be performance gains that will be acceptable to all involved. A parent needs to ask that question frequently enough for their children to continue to grow at an acceptable rate, as human beings and students.

At day's end, that's really all that matters.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Elbert Starks III at estarks@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8266.