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‘Commendable’ is meaningless – How did our school really do?

If something is to be “commendable,” it should be a high achievement. “I commend you on your performance on the battlefield,” should proceed a knighthood or “I commend your mastery of the violin,” after a virtuoso performance. “Commend” is a verb with a very specific a lofty meaning.

It does not mean “average,” and it most definitely does not mean “good enough.” The Illinois State Board of Education, however, seems to have taken it that way. Now schools across the country that are doing “good enough” get to instead tell their parents and students that they are “commendable.”

In the recent Illinois school report cards, there were four ratings a school could receive: exemplary, commendable, under-performing and lowest performing. Notice failing is not one of the options on that list.

Of the 3,778 schools rated on that scale, nearly 70 percent were rated commendable, and 10 percent were exemplary. When schools discuss being commendable on the state report card, we need to understand what that really means - the highest point on the bell curve. The middle 70 percent of the pack. Not the best, but not the worst.

The criteria for a school being rated commendable is that it not have any under-performing subgroups in the school and that it graduate 67 percent of its students.

That’s it.

Why don’t schools receive the same grades as students on their report cards? What’s wrong with the classic A to F standard we’re all so familiar with and, for high school students trying to get into competitive colleges, so important? Why don’t schools have the same stakes as its students?

Education is an incredibly complex field, and in an effort to win votes and kudos, politicians have a habit of breaking it down by test scores and funding, and news coverage will continue those talking points because very few politicians or reporters have degrees in education. Morris and Coal City high schools have graduation rates way higher than 67 percent, why should they be lumped in with the other commendables?

Not everything needs to be simplified into digestible sound bites. That’s where the whole idea for a School Report Card came from – someone in a state’s education office thought they were being clever one day and no one corrected them.

The fact is, every piece of data on the school report card matters, and the context around it matters. A school with high absence figures is going to serve a different demographic than one with a high percentage of ninth graders on track. It could be that the first school is doing something wrong, but not necessarily, and we should judge it based just on that number alone.

Education loves buzzwords. College and career readiness is one of the big ones right now. Are our students prepared for college or a career? It’s a good goal, maybe for juniors and seniors in high school. But you hear it bandied about in middle schools. Seventh graders need to be ready for eighth grade. That’s it. Unless you live in Victorian England, there’s no 12 year old going off to work after school to sweep a chimney or mine coal.

I was 30 years old before I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. Is that the fault of my middle school? I highly doubt that.

There are some bad schools out there, more than a few of which I’m sure that, through some fluke, get to say they are “commendable,” and the worst of which get to say they are just the “lowest performing.”

Schools are the largest taxing bodies for most properties. They should be held accountable, but in a real way. No more tricks of language, and no more simplifying the data so its easy. Saying something is too difficult so it won’t get done is how middle schoolers respond to homework.

Maybe the first step is that we all need to get on the same page about what public school is for. Is it to prepare for the work world, like it was a century ago, so that every worker could read enough to not get killed on the factory floor? Or is it the purpose of education, where the practical value of reading, writing, and arithmetic aren’t exactly obvious at first, but play out down the road? What are we willing to pay for?

Maybe then we can gauge the results with real, meaningful assessments.

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