Accountability–YES! School Grades–NO!
At Governor Scott’s recent School Grading Summit, there was much discussion about extending safety nets to schools which would otherwise drop two letter grades caused by the significant changes to the grading rules. They might as well have debated whether or not to throw safety nets off the Titanic.
The Florida A-F school grading system has been touted by its advocates as a fair, objective ranking system that has done wonders for our children.
I beg to differ.
Until the recent pulling back of the curtain on the obvious manipulation of “proficiency” scores, few questioned the validity of school grades. (Think, Wizard of Oz). When the grades came tumbling down, the public finally realized how arbitrary and politically driven this system is. There are many ways to skin a cat; school grades take too much skin.
While these grades may provide an easy code to sell houses near the “good” schools, they do not provide clear information about schools for parents and students. Instead, they reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes of this universally mis-understood A-F system.
Let me explain why.
It’s true that 50% of the points used to grade schools are based on student growth and improvement. However, since the other 50% are based on attainment of high proficiency standards , those schools with few “proficient” students in their school zones are enormously handicapped when it comes to earning a good school grade. I heard a principal of a “D” school jokingly offer to trade the school’s star quarterback for 10 students with a Level 3 score. Really! That’s how much pressure there is on schools to get “good grades.” The system breeds gamesmanship, is unfair and every insider knows it.
The devil really is in the details, and this is why schools should not be compared to each other using simplistic school grades. For example, if you have a school where 90% of the students enter far below proficiency, it is next to impossible to earn an A or B. By design, the points just won’t add up. This might be a terrific school that helps improve the lives and achievement of its students, but the public will see a low grade and regard it as an inferior school.
Even in the categories that are supposed to level the playing field, such as improving the bottom 25%, it’s much easier to accomplish if most of the students arrive already on grade level and above. Generally, these are the schools which have consistently earned A’s and years of bonus money. It’s not that they don’t work hard; the grading rules are just stacked in their favor.
The dilemma is that it wouldn’t make sense to the public’s common understanding of what an A grade should be if most of the students in a school were still reading below grade level. In fact, when some low performing schools earned enough improvement points for a B or C, the rules were changed to require that schools drop a letter grade if at least 25% don’t meet proficiency standards in reading, no matter how many students achieved measurable gains. They just can’t win.
For the most part, high poverty schools are where the biggest challenges are. Everyone knows that. It’s statistically proven that when students start out behind, it’s extremely hard for them to catch up. Low school grades shame students and parents and embarrass the very schools that are often doing the hardest work. Instead of enticing top teachers and administrators to these schools, school grades do the opposite. Who would volunteer for a C, D, or F school with these rules?
For our most disadvantaged students and schools, school grades are reminiscent of the scarlet letter stigma of years gone by. Worst of all, it has made the lowest performing students the least desirable ones to enroll in any school. The big winners in this school grading scheme are the for-profit charter school companies and the standardized testing and software giants.
We can change this.
Yes, the state should set high standards and demand open, transparent accountability. School districts should analyze student test data to understand where weaknesses reside and where improvements need to be made. Accountability, when done with a helping hand, is valuable. I’ve never known principals or superintendents who didn’t want their schools and students to be the best they can be.
Let’s end the “shame game” and dump these ill-conceived A-F school grades. Instead, reward principals and teachers who make gains with our hardest to reach students, even when they don’t match the achievements of the advantaged schools. Construct a fair, clear accountability system that tells the truth and rewards progress, wherever it’s achieved.