Q&A with Michael Kirst: Single rating for schools 'just too simplistic'

September 06, 2019

Stanford education professor Michael Kirst was a leading architect of California’s new accountability system based on multiple measures and the California School Dashboard that represents visually how schools are doing on numerous indicators. Kirst, a close advisor on education to Gov. Jerry Brown for several decades, was president of the State Board of Education when Brown became governor in 2010,  and occupied a similar position during Brown’s first term as governor in the 1970s. Kirst has argued strongly against trying to rate a school or school district on a single measure. John Fensterwald and Louis Freedberg talked with Kirst to get his views on why he is opposed to a single rating. 

EdSource: Los Angeles Unified is talking about coming up with a system to rank its schools on a 1 to 5 scale. Do you still think that a single rating for schools is not the way to go and if so, why?

Michael Kirst: I strongly think that that’s not the way to go for both technical and policy reasons. On our California School Dashboard there are five or six state factors plus some local factors. To reduce it to a single factor, you would have to decide on a weight for each one. How much would be determined by test scores? Would that be 25%? 50%? How much would be determined by student suspensions? How much by graduation rates? How much by English Learner progress? What happened in the past and in other states is they just grabbed numbers out of the air. Maybe test scores ought to be 50% and graduation rates 10%? There’s no scientific basis for making these weightings and we couldn’t think of any basis for doing it that way.

Secondly, we also were very interested in measuring student growth year over year. How much would you weight growth from year to year versus weighting the actual test score in a particular year? There is just no empirical way to do this without making up arbitrary weights and numbers and getting a single number, which is misleading. It’s sort of like using the Dow Jones average for everything in the stock market. No reasonable investor would do that. So those are the technical reason we did it this way.

Thirdly, we wanted to set up a system of support for schools. Instead of a single number,we wanted to come up with a nuanced view of all of the many components and dimensions of the school around which we could design our system of support. A school may have good test scores, but its graduation rates may be terrible. It may have high test scores and poor English learner progress. We wanted to be more specific on how to intervene and help schools and support them.