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A-F Grades for Schools

By Jack Schneider — May 12, 2015 5 min read
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In this post, Jack Schneider and Mercedes Schneider discuss the A-F rating system used to evaluate schools in Louisiana and elsewhere.

Jack Schneider: Louisiana issues A-F letter grades for the schools—an increasingly common practice across states.

What have people at the state and district level told you about this kind of rating system? What is their theory of action? And what do you see the impact on schools being?

Mercedes Schneider: The idea of assigning letter grades to schools comes from Jeb Bush’s reform package in Florida and was featured as potential model legislation at the annual conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). See page 46 of this ALEC memo.

One week after that conference, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted to adopt letter grading for schools.

The ALEC link above notes that “people instantly and intuitively understand letter grades.” Compare this to then-BESE president Penny Dastugue’s comment: “People can relate to grades.” The article goes on to note that the “simplicity” of letter grading “ends” with the “idea.”

States can do whatever they like with a letter grade formula to manipulate the “graded” outcome. The public will see certain grades and think A=best, F=worst. But corporate reform has taken it a step further to insist that C=failing, as it is in the case of voucher eligibility in Louisiana.

The problem is that this system has made the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) look consistently “failing.” Even with John White’s awarding “bonus” points in 2012-13 to schools with lots of kids not achieving well on state tests (and the resulting inflation lifting a “D” to a “C,” for example), RSD has yet to produce “A” schools.

I have heard RSD parents say that the letter grades do not often reflect the reality of a school. They seem to go by reputation rather than letter.

In 2011, my principal was fretful of schools being graded. He saw it as a means of stigmatizing schools.

Jack Schneider: It seems like you’re implying that the intended purpose of letter grades is to manipulate the public—that policy elites developed them as a tool to steer parents towards some schools and away from others.

But while I despise these letter grades, I think the motive underlying them is much simpler. Backers of letter grades believe two things. First, they believe that test scores measure school quality. And second, they believe that choice is a panacea. The theory of action, then, is that if you present the public with these grades, they will put “bad” schools “out of business” by moving their children to “good” schools.

Now, both of these assumptions are wrong. Those letter grades depend heavily on student standardized test scores, and most scholars agree that test scores tell you more about family income than they do about school quality. But even if those grades did successfully measure school quality, the market model doesn’t really work. “Good” schools can’t just expand the way a fast food chain can. And “putting a school out of business” often means devastating a community—shutting down a major neighborhood resource.

Yet I do think people need access to information about school quality. Now, that information should certainly go far beyond standardized test scores, and it should give all schools—regardless of student demography—a fair shot at success. Additionally, it shouldn’t be framed in an A-F format, which is designed to scare the hell out of people. But if it were done well, think what better information about school quality would do:

First, it would empower parents and communities to advocate more effectively for their kids. Not by acting as consumers who shop for the top-rated school. But, rather, as invested stakeholders who need a clearer picture of what their school needs to work on.

Second, it would enable states and districts to more effectively deploy resources to where they are most needed. High-performers could be granted greater autonomy. Lower performers could be given additional support.

Finally, I believe that better measures of school quality might actually challenge some of the troubling assumptions people have with regard to where good schools are located. Sure, suburban schools tend to have higher test scores than their rural or urban counterparts. Insofar as they tend to serve a more affluent clientele, that makes sense. But are they better schools? Are kids really being better served at those schools? When resource-rich and quality-conscious parents assume that they need to head to suburbia in order to give their kids a decent education, they not only might be wrong, but they also intensify segregation in the process.

So I’m in favor of measuring school quality. I just think we need much better measures.

Mercedes Schneider: We had a four-star-rating system in place prior to letter grades.

We had school scores around since about 1998.

The star rating was changed to letter grades precisely to manipulate the public. The media eats it up in a way unknown when star-ratings were used.

Jack Schneider: First, I want to point out that whether the rating system is based on stars or letters, it is equally problematic as long as the inputs into the rating system are primarily standardized test scores. The letter grade isn’t the problem. The real problem is the data that generates the letter grade.

Second, you’re right that an “F” school will produce more headlines than a “one star” school. But isn’t that just because we all know what an “F” means, as opposed to “one star”?

Again, I’m not saying we should use letter grades to evaluate schools. But I do think that any rating system needs to be easily understood by the public.

A letter system does that. Now, it does that in a lazy way—adopting an existing rubric that doesn’t really work when we’re talking about organizations like schools. And it does it with little regard for consequences. So, on the whole I find it irresponsible. But I really don’t see an agenda here. That answer’s too easy. It doesn’t get at the root problem, which is that measuring school quality is really hard (as is representing data to the public)...and right now nobody is putting in the work.

Mercedes Schneider: The public assumes they “understand” the letters because they have seen letters used as grades for individual students.

If the public cannot understand the formula behind the letters—and that the formula is ever-changing—then the public does not “understand” letter grades.

Shifting formulae make year-to-year comparisons deceptive. The agenda is to panic the public into buying the “failing schools” narrative—the basis for conversion from board-led to charter-management-led education.

Jack Schneider: I think you make a good point that if the rating system isn’t transparent and easy to use, then it can be subject to abuse. Now, I don’t see the evidence that anyone is manipulating such systems to panic the public. That’s just too conspiracy-oriented to ring true for me. But I do think we can agree that these rating systems are often designed by policy leaders who believe that the schools are failing, and that their assumptions seep into these systems.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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