Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Dangers of Grading Our Schools

On March 22, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed legislation “aimed at ensuring all students in Virginia have the best opportunity to learn and that students, regardless of their zip code, receive a world class education.”
Included in McDonnell’s All Students initiative was the creation of an A-F School Report Card. According to his press release, the new performance ratings will simplify the current system of accountability to help parents fully understand the performance of their child’s school. It continues by stating, “the new report cards will recognize schools for challenging all students to reach high levels of achievement. They will also give schools a tool to encourage more parental and community involvement.”

Sounds good, right?  We can’t argue against high achievement, parental involvement and accountability. All are extremely important to effective schools and student achievement.

But let’s peel away the layers and ask ourselves, “Does grading our schools benefit our students?”


Instead, school report cards may actually cause more damage. School-wide grades are notoriously inaccurate. They do not increase parental involvement and they can ruin teacher morale. This clearly is not a recipe for school improvement.

Question 1: Are School Grades Reliable and Accurate?

Accountability systems are only useful if their measures are reliable and clear. Creating such a system is a monumental—perhaps impossible—task. Ask 100 people to define a high quality or A school and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Of course, Virginia will rely primarily on SOL tests and other data such as graduation rates, but disagreements over what specific measures to include and how to include them are inevitable. Virginia hopes to use a balance of both absolute performance factors such as student SOL test scores and growth measures that encompass changes in SOL scores over time.

Both measures present their own unique set of problems. Absolute performance factors vary little from year-to-year, but they are also highly correlated with student characteristics such as socio-economic status. Conversely, growth measures, which the Board of Education will have two years to develop and add to the grading system, fluctuate greatly.  Accurate and credible growth measures require multiple years of data.

One grade cannot tell the whole story. What do I mean? A good school, let’s say one earning a B, may not be serving the needs of ALL of it’s students very well.  For example, the overall student population may meet the math benchmarks, but a subgroup/gap group (Hispanics, Blacks, or students with disabilities or economically disadvantaged) may not meet the necessary requirements. One grade cannot portray this; a narrative is needed.

A narrative would also be necessary to differentiate between schools. In a fictitious example, only 5% of Millard Fillmore High School students receive free/reduced lunches, but at Andrew Johnson High School 95% of students qualify for reduced lunches. We cannot expect these schools to earn similar SOL scores or have comparable graduation rates. Similarly, we must address the difference between low-performing schools and schools serving lower-performing students.

McDonnell claims that Virginia’s current system lacks clarity. Oversimplifying the process by assigning one grade actually undermines his goal of clarity. A-F grades fail to explain how or why a school earned such a grade, nor do they tell you much about a school’s true effectiveness. 

Question 2: Do School Grades Increase Parental Involvement?

Governor McDonnell suggests that creating a school report card will increase parental and community involvement. In the March/April issue of Education Policy Rebecca Jacobsen of Michigan State warns against presenting unclear or misleading information because it can ultimately erode parental support for the schools. As part of her research, Jacobsen examined New York City Schools, each of which is assigned a simple letter grade. As a result of a policy of capping the number of schools that can receive an A grade, many schools grades fell. As  a result, parent satisfaction declined—despite the fact that student performance didn’t drop. Her research also concluded that parent satisfaction did not increase when school grades increased.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell

Jacobsen’s research highlights two important facets of school grades. First, the effect of declining grades has a larger effect than seeing a school maintaining or improving its performance.  Declining grades erode trust and can lead to declining community and parental support. Secondly, she states, “In our rush to produce data of all shapes and sizes and then reshape these data for policy or political purposes, we cannot forget how the public is interpreting these data.”

Like Jacobsen, I do believe in high student expectations and accountability. We should strive for transparency and accountability. But, in our haste to create such a system Virginia has ignored too many variables (socio-economic status, percentage of special education students, percentage of English language learners, etc). Despite good intentions, Oklahoma, Florida, New York City and others rushed to implement school grades. Flaws in their grading systems were soon discovered and changes were made. The unfortunate byproduct of such haste: erosion of the public’s trust in schools, ineffective and harmful education policy, and plummeting teacher morale. Of course, who suffered the most: students. 

As McDonnell suggests, parents understand A-F grades, why not eliminate a single grade in favor of multiple school indicators that accurately reflect a school’s performance? Creating a balanced grading system would enable each school to be accurately measured in regards to student achievement, student progress and other strategic goals established by each school. 

Question 3: How Will School Report Cards Affect Teacher Morale

Because of the newness of school grades, I found little no research indicating how school grading systems impact teacher morale. But I can speak from both personal experience and other research.  Goals that others choose for us seldom motivate us to change. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us Daniel Pink concluded, “Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others—sales targets, quarterly reports, standardized test scores, and so on—can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”

Pink suggests that teachers are motivated by mastery, autonomy and purpose. As teachers we want to know we are doing our jobs well; we don’t need a standardized test or a school grade to tell us this. We desire to have freedom to choose our own goals and how to achieve them. Finally, wanting to make a difference in the lives of our students motivates us. In the last twenty years, flexibility, autonomy and creativity have eroded. Instead, we’ve been besieged by federal, state, and district compliance checklists.

School report cards, especially in schools with lower-performing students, will further diminish our sense of accomplishment and purpose.

What Should Be Done

We all stand together for raising student expectations, even if mandated by state or federal governments. Instead of rushing to provide parents with a singular letter grade, we should proceed deliberately and cautiously by implementing the following.
1.     Eliminate the single grade and replace it with multiple school measurements that accurately portray a school’s performance.
2.     To ensure accuracy and balance, combine both absolute and growth-based data. Effective growth models use multiple years of data to measure the school’s effect on student performance.
3.     Data should not be used for high-stakes decisions, such as school takeovers or closures.
4.     Use compiled data to develop school-based improvement plans that focus on incremental and continuous improvement. Plans should be locally generated with teachers and administrators collaborating, Struggling schools should receive additional resources such as instructional and assessment experts.
5.     Schools should be measured on the progress they make in achieving their goals.

Government attempts to grade schools will backfire if done for political purposes. We must take the appropriate steps to depoliticize education and empower our educators to make the necessary changes.

What are your thoughts?

Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead, 2009. 

Michigan State University (2013, March 25). How school report cards can backfire. Science Daily. Retrieved March 26, 2013 from


Donna Mace said...

As a Florida educator, I can think of no redeeming value in assigning letter grades to schools. We need to regain control of public schools immediately. Our students deserve so much more!

Reed Gillespie said...

Donna, thanks for taking the time to read the blog. I'm hoping Virginia has learned something from Florida's school grade debacle, but seeing how Governor McDonnell invited and involved former Gov Bush, it seems doubtful.

Alicia Conway said...

I guess that home assignments, overwhelming ones, is another threat. Since I want my child be more concentrated on the process of applying for the college, not on this stuff. Thus, I had to ask for help at special
services, so that my son can get good marks.

Tiffany Neill said...

I am curious as to your thoughts on A-F grading of students. Couldn't the same arguments be made for assigning grades to students? However, I don't see critical analysis of A-F grading of students in educational conversations.

Reed Gillespie said...

Tiffany, in a word "yes" many of the same arguments could be made in regards to our A-F grading system for students. I agree that in many classrooms our student grading system needs fixing and fortunately many teachers/districts are moving to a standards-based grading system. I'd encourage you to join Twitter's #sbgchat (Wednesday's 9ET) to participate in the conversation based around the premise that we do need to improve our grading systems.

With that being said, I do think there are differences between a school grade and student grades. Among them: students should be receiving feedback about their grades throughout the year, grades are individualized--each student receives a grade as opposed to the entire class receiving a grade, parents have a better grasp/knowledge of their children, etc.

I'll be blogging about student grading systems in the near future and would appreciate your feedback.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I am a parent in Indiana, where the phrases "succeeding whatever the zip code" and "a world-class education" have become eerily much so that our district administrators wrote "a world-class education" into our district mission statement. I believe they wanted to be on the safe side and align their goals with the state's. It sounds like your governor is working from the same suspect source materials...ALEC, maybe.

You are right. An A-F grading system is the opposite of transparent. It is unhelpful and uninformative. I haven't talked to one parent who has found it useful. It is absurd to try to sum up the complex organism that is a school in a letter grade, for all the reasons you point out. I am really concerned with the narrowing of the curriculum that results from high-stakes testing. These are the things that I want to know about schools: do they have decent class sizes? Are the teachers experienced and highly qualified? Are there vibrant arts, P.E., science, and social studies classes taught by specialized teachers? Are foreign languages offered? Does each individual school have its own full-time, certified librarian? Do the children have enough recess and exercise to support healthy bodies/brains? Is there a canned curriculum or do teachers have the freedom to be creative and respond to students' interests? A-F not only says nothing about the things that matter most to me, it is likely to reduce the richness and variety of what is offered at our schools. I'd say to Virginia parents: organize now and reject this punitive and superficial model. Otherwise your children will suffer the consequences, as ours are doing here in Indiana.

Reed Gillespie said...

Thanks for your support and comment.

I was vacationing in Florida last week when many of the grades (elementary and middle schools) were released. It resulted in maybe a 20 second blip on the local newscasts. The newscasts gave a quick "these schools earned D's and F's and grades were down throughout the state reflecting higher standards."

Definitely, not sure how such information is helpful to parents or schools.

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