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Students stand in the hallway Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at Richard C. Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas. Clark County School District designated the school as a turnaround after being one of the slowest-performing elementary schools in the state. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

When Rachel Morris and her family moved to Las Vegas from San Francisco, they put more stock in a prospective school’s mascot than its star rating.

Morris, a mother of two, says this jokingly, but the reality is her kids lucked out: They ended up at Goolsby Elementary School, a five-star building. Her son and daughter are now “Goolsby Greyhounds,” which they thought had a nice ring to it.

“I did look at the star ratings, but I didn’t take them too seriously,” she said. 

Her outlook raises a question about the annual star ratings. They foster hopes and fears among educators and can trigger celebrations at schools that earned high marks, but how much value do parents place on those yellow stars?

The Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to publish certain accountability-related information about a school and district’s performance, but the federal law gives them latitude in how to do so. Some states use rating systems with traditional letter grades. Others states, including California, have adopted dashboard-style systems that show performance across multiple metrics but don’t assign an overall rating. 

Under the Nevada School Performance Framework, schools receive a star rating based on their performance. It ranges from five stars for schools that exceed all expectations to one star for schools that have not met the state’s academic standards. A variety of metrics, including students’ performance on standardized tests, chronic absenteeism rates and opportunity gaps factor into a school’s overall star rating.

The Nevada Department of Education releases the star ratings every September, often with fanfare for schools that achieved five stars or showed huge improvement. But shortly after the star ratings debuted last month, Rebecca Garcia, president elect of the Nevada PTA,  posed the following question in a Facebook group for Clark County School District parents:

PARENTS - Interested to hear your thoughts... With all the Star Rating news today how much do the Nevada school performance rankings matter to you? This is specifically for PARENTS to respond to please.”

More than 500 people responded to the survey. The vast majority of respondents (62 percent) chose the option labeled, “Interested to know but not how I judge a school.” The other votes cast fell in this order: 

  • “Somewhat important” (18 percent)
  • “Very important” (12 percent)
  • “Let’s just help students enjoy learning again” (5 percent)
  • “Not important” (3 percent)

Although not a scientific survey, the results offer a glimpse of how parents view the yearly school ratings. Garcia  said the Facebook survey didn’t necessarily surprise her. 

“I have mixed feelings about the star ratings,” she said. “It’s interesting because I actually love data. I do think we need some sort of measurement and accountability. At the same time, I only think it tells a small piece of the whole story.”

Garcia, who has three school-aged children, said fluctuations between two, three and four stars don’t bother her as much as schools that haven’t budged from a one-star rating for years. Her children are zoned for Bailey Middle School and Mountain View Elementary School, which this year received one- and two-star ratings, respectively. Instead, her children attend three-star magnet schools — Sandy Searles Miller Academy for International Studies and Mike O’Callaghan Middle School — on the east side of Las Vegas. 

The magnet schools’ higher star ratings contributed to Garcia’s decision to send her children there, she said. But she digs deeper into the ratings, analyzing how the schools performed across different metrics. Sandy Searles Miller Academy for International Studies, for example, has a chronic absenteeism rate of 5.2 percent. Garcia said that statistic tells her more about the school than its overall rating.

“That’s because kids want to go to school. Parents want to send their kids there,” she said. “The culture and climate of a school makes a huge difference.”

But Garcia isn’t convinced most parents have the time or desire to sift through the data and decode the education lingo attached to the rating system. Joshua Parker, a parent and UNLV student studying education, agrees. He judges the quality of education his daughter receives more on her teacher than a school’s overall rating. 

“I know my daughter goes to a four-star school, and that’s great,” he said. “All I care about is what they’re being taught. I don’t need a number for the school, personally, to determine whether the school is good.”

Colby Pellegrino, a mother of two children who attend Twitchell Elementary School, said she does place some emphasis on the star ratings — and the data embedded within it — for the sake of accountability. The rating system, she said, arms parents with information that enables them to compare student progress and schools. 

But, like Parker, she also pays close attention to her children’s teachers.

“I think one good teacher or one bad teacher makes all the difference in the world,” she said. “I know some amazing teachers that teach at two-star schools, and I know some really mediocre teachers that teach at five-star schools.”

In fact, the Nevada Teacher of the Year, Gail Hudson, works at a two-star school, Hummel Elementary.

Morris said her children fared well academically at a Title I school serving a low-income population in San Francisco. They’re thriving here, too, at a high-performing suburban school, which she attributes to factors beyond test scores and star ratings. Morris said after-school programs matter, as do personal connections. Her son formed a bond with a physical-education teacher, she said, and looked forward to that class.

“You could put your kids in the best-ranked school ever, and they could be unhappy because it’s just not for them,” she said.

Dr. Jonathan Moore, the state’s deputy superintendent for student achievement, said the star ratings serve an important purpose because they capture achievement happening across a school. The data points within the rating system show where learning outcomes have fallen short, giving educators a roadmap for improvement, he said. But the department is also working with school districts on ways to make the star rating information more accessible — and digestible — to parents. 

Ideally, he said parents should be browsing the star rating information and telling their child’s teacher or principal, “Talk with me a little bit more about what this data means for my school and what it means for my child.”

Still, Moore acknowledged that parent perception of school quality goes beyond academic benchmarks. Parents want to know about their children’s safety, social well-being, connections with staff and access to extracurricular programs or field trips, he said.

“I think parents consider many things when measuring the overall education experience and context for their children,” he said.

For some parents, though, the star ratings take the guesswork out of navigating the public education system. Cristian Baeza said she sends her two children to Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, a three-star magnet, in part because of its rating. She also heard good things about the school from family and friends.

“Even when you buy something, you go to the reviews and you trust a little bit more when they have good reviews,” she said. “With the schools, it’s the same.”

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