Since 2014, the climate of each public school in Georgia has been rated annually on a scale of 1-5. School climate, according to the National School Climate Center, refers to a school’s “quality and character,” based on the “patterns of students, parents, and school personnel’s experiences of school life.” Factors that affect a school’s climate include its values and norms, instructional practices, organizational structures, and overall goals.
The use of this rating system makes Georgia the first state in the nation to include a school climate rating in its academic accountability system (the College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI). Georgia educators feel strongly about including the rating system, the School Climate Star Rating, because school climate is increasingly recognized as an early indicator of student performance.
Peer-reviewed research supports the connection between school climate and student success. Recent studies show that students, teachers, and parents in schools with positive climates feel respected, engaged, and safe, both physically and emotionally. These same schools tend to have higher levels of student achievement and graduation rates.
In contrast, schools with suboptimal climate ratings have environments in which students have a higher likelihood of being bullied and chronically absent. Not surprisingly, these schools show lower levels of student performance (Amrit, et. al).
How Does Georgia Measure School Climate?
Perceptions about school climate can be subjective, but combined with the examination of quantitative data, administrators can assemble a coherent picture of a school’s learning environment. Georgia’s School Climate Star Ratings are based on surveys, student discipline records, incident reports, and attendance records:
- Surveys are administered to teachers, parents, and students, and include sections of the annual Georgia Student Health Survey (GSHS), where students evaluate such statements as, “I feel safe at school,” “Teachers treat me with respect,” and “Good behavior is noticed at my school.”
- Student Discipline is based on the number of disciplinary actions reported, weighted by type, and divided by the number of students in a school.
- Safe and Substance-Free Learning Environment criteria are measured by combining survey responses with student-discipline data related to substance abuse and safety (including incidence of violence, bullying, and so forth).
- Attendance is measured by the percentage of students with fewer than six unexcused absences, and average daily attendance of staff, teachers, and administrators.
Giving equal weight to each metric, a school receives a numeric score. Schools that fall within the highest range receive 5 stars, and those falling in the lowest range receive 1 star.
How Schools Can Improve Their School Climate Star Ratings
Since 2014, School Climate Star Ratings have been trending upward. And in 2017, a full 88 percent of Georgia schools earned a School Climate Star Rating of 3 or higher. The coveted 5-star rating is elusive, however, and has only been earned by 19 percent of schools.
Schools can take several steps to improve their ratings, and a few of these are built into the system itself. After an initial rating has been assigned, for example, schools can earn additional points by doing either or both of the following:
Create a Personalized Climate Plan. The Georgia Department of Education encourages schools with fewer than five stars in their initial rating to submit a research- or evidence-based plan for improving the four key metrics. This personalized climate plan boosts a school’s score by five points, which can mean the addition of an entire star in its climate rating. These extra points, however, are only awarded to schools with acceptable participation levels on the Georgia School Health Survey, so it’s important to get teachers, students, and parents to complete the survey in a timely fashion.
Develop Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Another way for schools to increase their initial star ratings by five points is to implement a “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports” plan (PBIS), a proven method of reducing disciplinary issues.
It All Comes Down to Data
To ensure the success of a personalized climate plan and behavioral interventions and supports, it’s important to have access to accurate and comprehensive data. If your school doesn’t already have a robust data platform that enables you to track academic and climate data at the student, classroom, and school levels, it’s time to make the investment and become more proactive about school improvement.
School officials in Clarke County, where 13 out of 21 schools are rated 3 stars or higher, made a commitment to becoming more data driven in January 2016, when they chose the Illuminate DnA platform to centralize all of the district’s valuable data. In a single platform, Illuminate DnA offers districts and schools the ability to collect, analyze, and report on a wide variety of data, including that relating to RtI, PBIS, and perception surveys.
The DnA assessment platform from Illuminate Education is enabling officials in Clarke County, and several other Georgia school districts, to facilitate academic intervention for struggling learners in a strategic and intentional way. By integrating a literacy screener normed on a large sample of diverse public school students from the southern United States, for example, district administrators can use DnA to quantify literacy targets for every student. Teacher and administrators can see right away which students need additional support and develop an individualized path toward success.
Get Georgia Reading reports a strong link between a positive school climate and grade-level reading: the better a school’s climate, the higher its percentage of students reading at grade level by third grade. At 5-star schools, the mean percent of 3rd graders scoring at proficient learner or above on the 2016 Georgia Milestones ELA was nearly three times higher than at 1-star schools, and nearly 50 percent higher than at 3-star schools.
Committing to the better use of data to create a shift in school climate requires leadership from the top and buy-in from all school administrators, staff, and teachers. Given the link between climate and academic success, tackling this challenge is well worth the effort.
Thapa, Amrit, Jonathan Cohen, Shawn Guffey, and Ann Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2013. “A Review of School Climate Research.” Review of Educational Research 83(3): 357-385.
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