The state rating is designed to hold your school accountable for student learning. It shows you, in a nutshell, where your school stands in relation to other schools in the state.

What the state rating means

Several states have created state rating systems designed to show if schools are achieving standards set by the state, and to provide a quick way to compare schools within the state. The state rating is based primarily on how well students score on state standardized tests. It gives you a quick snapshot of the school. Some states also weigh into their ratings whether schools have shown improvement on test scores over time; attendance; performance by low-income students, special needs students and English language learners.

State ratings are part of an accountability aystem

States have introduced school ratings in response to public pressure to improve schools. Ratings are one part of an accountability system that typically includes standards for what students are taught, tests to measure whether students are learning what the standards spell out, and, in some states, rewards and penalties.

Different states, different ratings

California has the Academic Performance Index, Florida gives each school a grade from A to F, and Texas has the Texas Accountability Rating. These and 24 other states have devised their own system for rating schools. In California, the rating is based on scores on the California STAR tests, and whether or not students improve their scores from one year to the next. In Texas it is based on the state test, TAKS; dropout rates for grades 7 and 8; and school completion rates for grades 9 to 12. In Florida, the school grade is based on the overall performance on the state test, the FCAT; the percentage of eligible students who took the test; and whether or not students made progress in reading and math.

Other factors to consider

  • No Child Left Behind. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law adds a layer of accountability at the national level. Each state is required to test students annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and at least once in grades 10 through 12. Students must be tested in science, too. Each state decides which tests to give and what the meaning of “proficient” is. Schools that don’t meet goals for their overall student bodies or specific categories of students face penalties. Unlike NCLB, many states also provide rewards to schools that are making the grade, based on their state rating.
  • NCLB rules don’t always mesh with the state rating. Some states have found their state rating inconsistent with NCLB’s harsher requirements. For example, in Florida, where the state rating is a grade of A-F, hundreds of schools have been given an A in Florida. But because they may have narrowly missed testing targets set by the federal government for a particular group of students within the school, they have been designated under NCLB as “in need of improvement” and face sanctions. Under NCLB a school either passes or fails, while the state rating takes into account progress toward improvement. As Congress considers whether to renew NCLB, these issues are bound to get attention and may result in more flexibility in the law.
  • High school exit exams. In the drive for more accountability, many states are now holding students as well as schools accountable for their performance. In 26 states, students are now required or soon will be required to pass a test to graduate from high school. Currently, eight states require students to pass a test as one of the requirements to pass from one grade to the next. Looking at the school-wide results on these tests gives you an indication of how the school stacks up.
  • NAEP-A national test useful for comparing states. To get a sense of how your state compares to other states, check the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Every state is required to give the NAEP test to a sample of students in fourth and eighth grade in reading and mathematics. By comparing the percentage of students achieving proficiency on the NAEP, you can get an idea how demanding your state’s standards are in relation to other states.
  • Who is accountable? Should the teachers, principals, districts and/or individual students be held accountable for school achievement? Will financial incentives for teachers or schools make a difference? Who should be rewarded or punished? These are questions that schools, districts and states are grappling with as they continue to make changes in their accountability systems in their drive for improvement.
  • The achievement gap. While many schools have shown progress in getting students to achieve proficiency in reading and math, states are still struggling to close the achievement gap between certain groups of students (low-income, minority students, English language learners and students with disabilities) and their higher-achieving peers. A Northwest Evaluation Association study showed that students in high-poverty schools began the school year with lower skills, gained fewer academic skills during the school year and lost more ground during the summer than their more affluent peers. NCLB, state rating systems and standardized test results have all been successful in shining a light on the achievement gap, but they have been less successful in closing it.

Questions parents should ask

If your school has a high rating, ask:

  • What is your school doing so that students continue to achieve at high levels?
  • Are teachers trained to use test score results to adjust their teaching?
  • Is your school providing extra help to the lowest achieving students?
  • What more can your school be doing to engage all students in learning?
  • How does the state rating compare to the federal (NCLB) rating?
  • What do the NAEP results show?
  • What can parents do to help?

If your school has a low rating, ask:

  • Are classroom teachers trained to analyze test scores and use them to adjust their teaching?
  • Do teachers get help from the school and the district to improve their instruction techniques?
  • Do teachers at your school work together to address learning needs?
  • What’s being done to recruit the most qualified teachers to teach at this school?
  • Is your school providing extra help to the lowest achieving students?
  • How does the state rating compare to the federal (NCLB) rating?
  • How do students at this school do on NAEP?
  • What can parents do to help?