NCLB Waiver Plans Push School Grading Systems

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 08, 2012 8 min read
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In the future, a principal in Idaho could celebrate if his school got a score of 99 from the state. But move the school to Arizona, and that score could push a principal to look for a new job.

As more states move to assign letter grades, stars, and other ratings to schools through their federal No Child Left Behind Act waiver applications, the diversity of the plans shows that getting an A or an F would mean different things in different states.

The school ranking systems have been conceived and presented as simple and attractive partners to children’s report cards that parents are used to scrutinizing.

But to produce those letters and stars, states plan to use complex formulas with different weights assigned to different factors that are intended to give school officials a more complete portrait of their schools and what their improvement strategies should focus on.

“They know that there’s multiple measures being used. So that star rating is far more transparent and accurate in terms of how their schools are performing than just a pass or fail on tests,” said Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna.

Pitches for NCLB Flexibility

More than 10 states still seeking waivers of parts of the No Child Left Behind Act have proposed or are implementing school grading systems that use five-star or A-F letter grades. The plans can vary in significant ways from state to state.


  • A-F letter-grading system based on 200 points. A school gets an F after being rated a D school for three straight years.
  • Of the available points, 100 are based on student growth on statewide assessments, including the growth of the lowest-achieving 25 percent of students.
  • A school can receive three “bonus” points if it reclassifies at least 30 percent of its English-language learners based on a statewide assessment.


  • Five-star rating system based on 100 points. A school with 83 points or more earns five stars. A school with 39 points or fewer earns one star.
  • For a school with a 12th grade, 30 out of 100 points are based on “postsecondary and career readiness.”
  • Performance of four subgroups contributes to a school’s grade: students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, members of minorities, those with disabilities, and English-language learners.


  • Five-star rating system based on 100 points. A school with 77 points or more earns five stars. A school with 32 points or fewer earns one star.
  • Student participation and performance on Advanced Placement and ACT or SAT tests, as two categories, can be worth up to 8 points for a high school.
  • Student growth is the single largest category for elementary and middle schools, accounting for 40 points.


  • A-F letter-grading system, based on 4 points. A school with 3.67 points or more earns an A, and a school getting 0.67 points or below earns an F.
  • A school cannot earn an A on the “achievement and graduation gap” portion of its score if one of four groups (all students, white non-Hispanic students, disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities) earns a C, D, or F.
  • Based on 2011 data, under the new A-F system, 24.8 percent of 3,103 traditional public schools (charters not included) would have earned A’s, 33.2 percent would have earned B’s, and 23.9 percent would have earned C’s.

SOURCE: State waiver applications

In general, states are becoming more sophisticated, both by deriving multiple threads of information from tests and by moving beyond tests to use such data as graduation rates, said Craig D. Jerald, a Washington-based education consultant.

But those systems often don’t match the growing sophistication of teacher evaluations by incorporating, for example, school observations, an omission many countries would find odd, he argued.

“I would say state policymakers are taking some baby steps,” Mr. Jerald said.

Achievement and Gaps

At the core of most school grading-system proposals is a pledge to focus on three main areas: student achievement on state tests, the academic growth of students (particularly those performing poorly), and the extent to which performance gaps have closed.

“It’s providing for a nuanced distinction amongst schools so that you can better target your support and interventions,” said Kirsten Taylor, a senior program associate with the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

One clear example of those three priorities at work is in the proposed School Performance Index in Maryland for elementary and middle schools. Its index would use “strands” to categorize schools, with Strand 1 the best and Strand 5 the worst.

A school would receive 30 percent of its points through its proficiency levels on math, reading, and science exams. Another 30 percent of its score would come from the percent of students making one year’s worth of growth on the state exams. But the largest single part of a school’s score, 40 percent, would come from the extent to which the gap between the lowest-performing subgroup and the highest-performing subgroup is closed.

“This was the opportunity to reflect what our schools were doing, not just on achievement but on some other areas, including closing the achievement gap, which is a priority for Maryland, and also for student growth,” said Mary Gable, the state’s assistant superintendent for academic policy.

The emphasis on growth is statistically prominent in several other school grading systems. Nevada in its proposed accountability system would base 40 percent of the total score for primary schools on student growth in the A-F grading system.

One popular method of measuring growth, which mimics Florida’s school grading system, established in 1999, would focus on a group of students on the low end of the achievement spectrum (in several cases, like Arizona and Indiana, the bottom 25 percent of students each year, known as a “supersubgroup”) and tie a portion of a school’s grade to that group’s growth or lack thereof.

Arizona would combine the general emphasis on student growth with the supersubgroup of the bottom 25 percent. In the student growth portion of a school’s grade, the state would double-count the bottom 25 percent by giving a school points based on the academic growth of those students, and then again factoring those students into its total growth score.

In Louisiana, F schools approaching D status could escape state penalties if they earned “incentive points” from the performance of their supersubgroups.

State officials argue that by focusing annually on low performers, they will stop obsessing over students close to scoring “proficient,” as under the NCLB law, in order to hit proficiency targets.

In Florida’s plan, which is using its state school grading system for federal accountability under its NCLB waiver agreement, if that bottom 25 percent group fails to make “adequate” gains, the school’s grade drops.

Similarly, in Ohio’s waiver plan, if one of four subgroups receives a C, D, or F in one of the measures, a school that would otherwise get an A drops to a B.

“The other big factor here is trying to take into consideration the implementation of the new common core,” said Patrick Gallaway, an Ohio education department spokesman. He was referring to the tests under development aimed at reflecting the Common Core State Standards that the state plans to begin using in 2014-15. “The rigor is going to be increasing.”

States that don’t choose Ohio’s approach of clear and major consequences for schools based on one student group’s results are taking an easy but troubling road, said Sandy Kress, who as an education aide to President George W. Bush helped craft the NCLB law.

“If they’re going to waive NCLB specifically and not honor the spirit, that’s where the waivers in my view get off track,” Mr. Kress said.

Representatives from Idaho, Ohio, and South Carolina indicated their states would move ahead with their proposed accountability systems even if they did not receive NCLB waivers. Ms. Taylor indicated that since the waivers represented a chance to merge state and federal accountability systems, and since some states had passed legislation implementing these new grading systems, the general momentum was for the grading systems to move ahead at the state level.

Across State Lines

But any attempts to compare school grades across state lines could fall flat very quickly.

Arizona would offer 200 points, and anything at 99 or below would earn a D. Although the state would use an A-F letter-grade system, schools in Arizona wouldn’t earn an F unless they got D’s for three straight years under its plan.

The range of an A or F in Louisiana would be large (100 to 150 points or zero to 49.9 points, respectively) compared with the range of scores for other grades (85 to 99.9 for a B, or 70 to 84.9 for a C).

Getting a point total in just one fashion isn’t the only road to take. Illinois plans to give high schools two distinct paths to reach five stars. But they would have to hit certain scores on the 100-point scale, such as 90 or more points on “progress” (growth in content and English proficiency) and 75 or more points in both achievement and outcomes (graduation rates), or vice versa.

Illinois and Oklahoma (a first-round waiver recipient) are also unusual for proposing to offer high schools “bonus” points if they score well on school climate surveys.

The concept of bonus points is not unique to those states, but where the points are applied varies. Arizona would offer 3 additional points to schools that reclassify at least 30 percent of their English-language learners to fully English-proficient status.

Graduation rates, a key nontest metric for many states, would be worth 10 percent of a high school’s grade in Maryland and Idaho, but 25 percent in South Carolina and Louisiana.

Another metric in some states would be standardized national tests, but the emphasis would differ. ACT and SAT scores and participation would count for only 4 points in Nevada, but in Louisiana, ACT scores would count for 25 percent of a high school’s grade.

Differences remain on whether annual measurable objectives, or AMOS, would factor into school grades.

States must set them for all students and subgroups and use them to drive interventions at schools. But the scores of individual subgroups (like traditional minority or special education students) don’t contribute to a school’s grades in some states, such as Florida, noted Daria L. Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at the Washington-based Education Trust and a peer reviewer of first-round NCLB waiver applications.

Indiana also sets group goals but limits their consequences to public-notification and improvement plans, the Education Trust also found.

By contrast, Minnesota and South Carolina (a first-round waiver recipient and a second-round applicant, respectively) factor AMOS for NCLB subgroups into school grades, Ms. Hall said.

She said the Education Trust was “encouraging advocates on the ground to closely track” whether schools were meeting those goals.

“We think there are some concerns about that in terms of the coherence and the message that it sends,” she said.

Echoing Ms. Taylor’s point, Ms. Hall said states should use student-subgroup goals to properly inform their school support strategies, whether or not they are factored into school grades. But many states in the second round of waiver applications were criticized by the U.S. Department of Education for not clearly identifying plans for “focus” and “priority” schools, or for not clearly setting AMOS.

Priority schools are in the bottom 5 percent of schools in academic performance, while focus schools contribute to the statewide achievement gap in various student groups.

Financial factors are now also in play. Georgia will count “financial efficiency” as part of its school grading system, although schools’ fiscal acumen was not part of the state’s waiver agreement. In proposed legislation, Alabama, which has not applied for a waiver, would allow its state superintendent to include “fiscal health” in school letter grades.

Parent Reaction

School administrators such as Sheila Huckabee, an assistant superintendent in the 6,600-student Clover school district in South Carolina, say school letter grades make it easier for people to politicize schools and unsettle parents.

“This will exacerbate things rather than explain things,” she said.

There could be unintended consequences. With easy-to-grasp A-F letter grades in Arizona, for example, parents could end up flocking in droves to A schools, since the state has an open enrollment policy, said Arizona PTA President Rochelle Wells. Since districts generally do not pay transportation costs for students from outside a school’s neighborhood, children from wealthier backgrounds could have a leg up on attempts to get into A schools, she said.

But Ms. Wells said that, for the most part, she thought the new A-F system would help parents.

“The actual letter, I think, makes a parent understand it better,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Waiver Plans Push School Grading Systems


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