The grading, judging, and ranking of schools has spiraled out of control. On multiple occasions, the systems involved have demonstrated their susceptibility to manipulation, as well as corruption.
At the same time, systematic rankings of schools have not established their ability to cause or sustain school improvement, let alone enhanced teaching and learning.
Despite these shortfalls, ideologues and policymakers continue to lobby for and implement school grading systems. These systems, which their supporters view as sophisticated, nonetheless shortchange schools with their narrow focus on what is to be considered in judging a school’s quality.
In reality, the logic behind grading schools is rather simple. Identify, measure, judge, and report on a core set of critical outcomes, such as literacy, numeracy, graduation rate, and college or career readiness. These public judgments are supposed to prevent the development of inequalities, funnel assistance to the appropriate locations, and uncover the secrets of schools that are beating the odds.
But what happens to this logic if we simply change what we measure?
Consider a ranking system for school quality built around the performance of sports teams. Yes, most people would say athletic performance pales in importance compared with the number of children proficient in reading comprehension or algebra. An extensive amount of research, however, finds a positive association between academic achievement and participation in extracurricular activities. Furthermore, such participation might not only increase constructive interactions with caring adults and time spent in safe environments, but also provide lessons in character, teamwork, resiliency, nutrition, and other desirable outcomes not measured directly on standardized subject tests.
Still, many people would say that sports-related rankings would be subject to unfair influences and manipulation. How could judgment of an entire school rely on only a subset of the student population, they might ask, while others would question the slate of sports included in the evaluation and the inequitable opportunities for students to practice, participate, and succeed. Would including lacrosse inherently bias rankings against inner-city schools? And what about the ability and performance of individual athletes and coaches? How would they influence the rankings?
Maybe athletic ranking systems would have to provide testing against recognized standards, such as score against par or timed miles or laps in a pool. But setting and reaching such standards raises additional questions about familial and school influences, as well as the composition of a school and the appropriateness of such assessments for all students.
Using a system based on athletics to grade schools seems ridiculous, right? Yet many of the objections to grading schools on academic performance are equally valid.
To avoid issues with estimating differences in ability and performance, like those inherent both in academic and theoretical athletic rankings, an alternative system might consider the population of the school or district. Using state, regional, or national averages, schools and districts could then be ranked based on the composition of their school populations. In some ways, reporting of student-subgroup performance already accomplishes this task. But, rather than punishing schools for poor performance, this system would reward schools that educated populations with greater concentrations of at-risk students.
Current measurement and grading of academic performance only provides information about a single facet of the operation of a school. ”
Even accounting for this factor, however, geographic location, economic circumstances, and housing policies would likely play major parts in the ranking. How could anyone expect a district, school, principal, or teacher to improve an overall grade?
Ironically, the solution to the school grading problem is more measurement, not less.
Current measurement and grading of academic performance only provides information about a single facet of the operation of a school. This singular focus not only facilitates manipulation, but also ignores inherent differences in schools and devalues the multitude of expectations demanded from schools.
Unfortunately, discussing grading alternatives these days provides fodder for fanatics on both sides of the school accountability debate. Potentially most concerning to me are those who proclaim any measurement of schools is ill-advised.
Assessing educational organizations, educators, and students is not inherently an absurd endeavor. Measurements help educators diagnose student and school difficulties; identify promising talents and programs; and develop more effective, safe, and stimulating learning environments. Nevertheless, in the development of systems that value measurements lies the opportunity for the influence of perverse educational outcomes. In other words, corruption and exploitation arise from a poor system of rankings, rewards, and sanctions, not the act of measuring.
So, how do we improve things? If school constituents value an activity, I’d recommend that they find ways to measure it.
For instance, how many students visited the city museum for the first time in their lives? What was the attendance at fine arts performances? How many hours do teachers spend beyond contract requirements? How many backpacks were sent home full of food?
Then, value these measured activities by reporting results to important stakeholders.
Beyond presentations of data to teachers, boards of education, and parents, search for and manufacture occasions to celebrate successes and describe challenges.
Present data to local clubs and organizations about school opportunities and needs. Invite real estate agents to visit the school, and provide them with information that supplements the school report card. Similarly, use the measurements to recruit talented faculty members and volunteers.
A single grade cannot accurately reflect the multitude of activities and challenges undertaken by and expected of schools. Yet, grading continues to wield incredible influence on public perception, as well as school operation. With livelihoods, funding, and enrollments at stake, focusing efforts to maximize the grade of a school becomes understandable.
Mark Twain once advised: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.” As educators continue to do right, they need to simultaneously measure their performance—but measure carefully and well. Their data might not gratify some people, but it will astonish the rest.
A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as To Be Fair, Educators Should Start Measuring More, Not Less