October 22, 2012 02:45 PM

Although just more than half of students in the Saint Louis Public Schools graduate in four years and the district has an abysmally low ACT score of 16.5, the Missouri Board of Education granted the school district provisional accreditation status, and rightfully so. After all, the district met the minimum requirements for provisional accreditation under the evaluation system in place when the district filed its request. Rather than quibble about whether they should or should not have been given provisional accreditation, it is time to reassess how we evaluate schools and school districts.

In college track and field, the NCAA sets both provisional and automatic marks for athletes to qualify for the national competition. The marks are set very high and often, not many athletes qualify automatically or even provisionally. In contrast, the state’s board of education has set the bar for accreditation and provisional accreditation very low; so low, in fact, that the distinctions are essentially meaningless.

The distinctions are also inconsequential because they change very little for the district besides the label. And as Shakespeare noted, “a low-performing school district by any other name would smell like a low-performing school district.” OK, maybe Shakespeare did not say that exactly, but you get the point; call the district what you will, the label has no real impact on students.

The state is moving to a new accreditation system this coming year. While the new system will be an improvement, it still leaves much to be desired. Both the old system and the new system accredit school districts, not schools. This was very important in the accreditation decision of Saint Louis Public Schools, where magnet schools drove up the district’s average performance. District level evaluations, especially in large urban districts, give parents very little information when they are deciding where to send their children to school.

Missouri’s current method of accrediting school districts does little more than give grown-ups something to argue about and has few real implications for schools or students. The state would be doing a real service to families if it moved to a school report card format, where schools are graded on a scale from “A” to “F.” A school grading system would allow families to be more informed, hold their local school more accountable, and express choice more wisely. Isn’t the goal to have parents become informed and engaged?

The current system pre-supposes that the state can hold schools accountable by accrediting the school district, when in reality, school accountability is best achieved when families are allowed to hold their child’s school accountable. The state can help in this effort if it makes school performance more transparent at the school level. If the reclassification of the Saint Louis Public School District proves anything, it is that the state’s standards are much lower than parents’ standards.

James V. Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.

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If the reclassification of the Saint Louis Public School District proves anything, it is that the state’s standards are much lower than the parents’ standards.

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