Do A-F school grades measure progress or punish the poor?

By: - February 4, 2015 2:23 pm


A look at some states’ experiences with pairing a letter grade with a school

When the Department of Public Instruction unveils A-F letter grades for all of North Carolina’s 2,500+ schools on Thursday, it won’t be the first state to try this accountability tool.

Back in 2011, Indiana began using A-F school grades as a way to communicate to parents and community members about how well schools are helping their students succeed–only to have its superintendent scandalously tweak the formula so the school of one of his political supporters wouldn’t receive a failing grade.

Virginia moved toward adopting the A-F grading scale for its schools back in 2013, but now, after a near two-year delay in implementing it, there’s a bipartisan push moving through that state’s legislature to repeal the grading scale entirely.

And in the birthplace of the A-F school grading system–Florida– the accountability measure’s creator, Jeb Bush, tweaked his own grading formula early on to set the state’s schools on a course for receiving higher grades.

At least fifteen other states have implemented the piece of the so-called “Florida formula” that uses a letter grading scale to bring greater transparency to how well schools are ensuring students’ academic success.

But in many cases, these school grades have raised concerns and questions about how effectively they improve public education, how fair it is to punish schools that serve disadvantaged communities, and the potential for politicians to game the system for their own benefit.

The Florida formula

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush came up with the idea of grading public schools in the late 1990s as a way to provide the public with a better understanding of how their neighborhood schools were performing.

The A-F school grades were high stakes from the start – students who attended F-rated schools for a number of years were then eligible to flee their designated failing school and receive taxpayer funded vouchers to use at private schools.

Initially, Bush’s formula for grading schools relied 100 percent on students’ performance on standardized tests on one given day. But within the first three years of the state’s A-F grading system, Bush changed the metric to incorporate how students’ performance on tests changed over time – thus adding in a “growth” element.

Bush has said the A-F grading system has spurred Florida’s low-performing schools to do better to help their students improve. But, says Matt DiCarlo, an education policy expert at the Albert Shanker Institute, those school improvements Bush points to have largely resulted from the fact that his changes to the metric during the early 2000s equated to gaming the system, producing artificially higher numbers of schools receiving As in the years after the first grades were released.

Since then, the Florida system of school grades has reportedly been plagued with problems resulting from many more tweaks to the measurement formula. According to The Washington Post, Florida’s school superintendents association recently called for the dissolution of the A-F grading scale.

The school grading system has changed multiple times over the past few years, including 34 changes in 2011-2012 alone. The culmination of these changes have had a significant impact on Florida’s accountability system and today many Floridians lack confidence in the assessments and school grades as a precise measure of a school’s performance,” the superintendents’ association notes in a legislative briefing.

Florida’s school grading system has become so complex and has frustrated so many, Governor Rick Scott signed last year a one year reprieve from the grades’ consequences, which typically include the requirement that if a school receives an F for two years in a row, the school must implement a turnaround strategy or a plan to convert to a charter school.

Charter schools, however, have fared disproportionally worse in Florida’s school grading system. In 2011, charter schools were seven times more likely to receive F grades than their traditional public school counterparts.

And while Florida’s current A-F school grading system tries to adjust for the fact that schools in high poverty areas face challenges that make it very hard for their students to perform well on standardized tests, it’s not enough, says Alan Ehrenhalt for Governing Magazine.

When the statewide results were tallied, Maine’s schools [whose A-F school grading scheme adjusts grades to account for demographic differences in a similar way to Florida’s formula] averaged a C grade—a reasonable enough sounding score. But when researchers in the state began looking at the results in greater detail, they found something that disturbed them. What the tests were really tracking was demographics. Schools in poorer communities around the state nearly all finished lower than their counterparts in affluent suburbs, regardless of academic methods. High schools that were graded A had an average of 9 percent of their students on free or reduced price lunch. Schools that got an F had 61 percent of their students receiving subsidized lunches. To a great extent, the test was simply a measure of poverty, not school quality.

North Carolina’s A-F school grading system doesn’t adjust for demographic differences, but it does have a growth component, albeit small – just 20 percent of a letter grade will draw on the degree to which students improve over time on standardized tests, which many pundits and educators say is not enough.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools are keenly aware of the potential for poverty to hold their schools back from achieving high grades in the state’s new accountability system, and so they’ve taken matters into their own hands.

Last week, Winston-Salem/Forsyth released their own set of performance grades for each of their schools. Their formula takes the state grade and bumps it up one letter grade for schools that meet or exceed state growth expectations, placing a heavier emphasis on how well schools help bring students along over time.

We created our own performance grades because we think they more accurately capture the work our schools are doing,” Superintendent Beverly Emory said in a news release. “Using one grade to measure a school’s progress is limiting, and we wanted it to better reflect student growth from one year to the next and the challenges of poverty.”

A model ripe for corruption?

Perhaps the most famous scandal resulting from the A-F school grading model arose in 2013 in Indiana, when the Associated Press obtained emails exposing the state’s former schools superintendent, Tony Bennett, to have manipulated the grading system to benefit one of his political donors, who ran a public charter school that was in danger of receiving a low grade.

The school, which had been kindergarten through eighth grade, added grades nine and 10 in 2012, and test scores from the new students were low enough to pull down the school’s rating from an A to a C on an A-to-F scale.

At Bennett’s direction, staff used a loophole in regulations and removed the scores of ninth- and 10th-graders, bringing the school’s grade back up to an A. Bennett has said that changing the grade made the rating system credible because he knew Christel House to be a high-performing school.

Bennett, a champion of school privatization initiatives who promoted many elements of Jeb Bush’s education reform agenda, had moved to Florida to head up the state’s schools by the time the scandal broke.

The fact that he doctored the school grade for one of his political chums was enough to force his resignation as Florida’s schools chief.

To add to the scandal, Jeff Bryant notes the Indianapolis Star report that were two traditional public schools in Indiana to receive the same break that Bennett’s friend’s school received, they wouldn’t have been subject to state-mandated takeovers by a charter operation called Charter Schools USA.

Incidentally, Charter Schools USA also eventually employed Bennett’s wife, reports Bryant.

The Indiana metric for grading schools relies solely on how students performed on standardized tests on a given day, and does not account for how students improved over time.

But in the wake of Bennett’s scandal, a review panel is seeking to add a “growth component” to the A-F grading model.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers in Indiana are now pushing legislation that would make it easier for the state to more quickly take over schools that receive Ds or Fs and put them in the hands of charter school operators.

Virginia set to reverse course

When former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell looked toward implementing A-F school grades in his state, he asked Jeb Bush to help sell the program to lawmakers in 2013.

But while the legislature greenlighted the program, which incorporates a more substantial growth component than North Carolina’s model, its implementation has been on hold for two years and now a bipartisan bill is moving through the General Assembly that would entirely repeal A-F school grades.

Critics of the school grading system in Virginia have been vociferous.

Bristol, VA schools superintendent Mark Lineburg and some of his colleagues made a lengthy case in 2013 for why the A-F school grading system unfairly punishes schools that must cope with high concentrations of poverty.

At the conclusion of presenting data that exemplify how schools that serve more affluent populations will almost always score higher than schools that serve poorer demographics, Lineburg and his colleagues had this to say:

Educating students in poverty is one of the nation’s greatest challenges; and this challenge increases with every percent point increase in free and reduced price lunches. Yet, in affluent school divisions where it should be easier to differentiate instruction specifically for fewer numbers of poor children, most achieve no better or even worse for economically-disadvantaged children than high poverty school divisions. Yet the more affluent school divisions will consistently receive A’s and B’s on the new rating scale.

It is discouraging that our elected officials, including our Governor supported legislation that so glaringly fails to recognize the inherent challenges faced by high poverty schools. To be more succinct, Governor McDonnell’s signature education legislation will punish high poverty schools and divisions even where significant gains toward increasing achievement for economically-disadvantaged students have been attained. More discouraging, assigning a low grade to a high poverty school division will decrease  its ability to attract and retain top teaching candidates who could have a significantly positive impact on the students, school, and the entire school community.

The Road Ahead

On Thursday, Department of Public Instruction will release the first letter grades for each school in North Carolina. For elementary and middle schools, the grades will largely represent how well a school’s students performed on standardized tests at one given time (that will be 80 percent of the grade), and, to a lesser degree, how much students’ performance on those tests has improved over time (20 percent of the grade). The high school formula also factors in graduation rates.

According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, more than two dozen school systems have passed resolutions urging lawmakers to delay the implementation of A-F school grades in order to reexamine the formula.

It’s punishing to schools that are working with kids who need the most help,” said Steve Agan, who has two daughters at Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville, in an interview with the Citizen-Times.

It’s insult to injury after these years and years of budget cuts, and I think it’s going to further damage morale at these schools,” Agan said.

The new school grades come the same week as the Public School Forum’s release of data that show vast differences in per pupil education funding between North Carolina’s poor and wealthy school districts.

The report highlights the fact that while state policy decisions over the past 25 years have sought to help poorer districts meet the needs of its students, differences in funding levels still persist and those born into wealthier areas are afforded higher levels of investment in their education.

In low-wealth districts, officials are warning the public that they should expect low grades for their schools, even if they have succeeded in bringing students up on test scores over time.

Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) told the News & Observer that the school grades “may fall along demographic lines,” and if that’s the case, he’d seek some changes in the current way school grades are determined.

But not in the next few years, at least. For now, Tillman wants to wait and see what happens.

I’d rather be in a D school making great growth than in an A school where growth is stagnant,” Tillman said. “I know if these kids are growing, there has to be good teaching and good leadership for that to be occurring.”

That may be difficult to discern when the grading mechanism favors performance over growth. And next year, the school grades will move from a 15 point scale to a 10 point scale, which means good grades will be harder to achieve and it would even be possible for schools that experience growth to drop a letter grade.

There’s just a great deal more that makes up a school’s quality than what a single letter grade could ever portray. I think that in a nutshell, that’s an issue,” Assistant Superintendent for Asheville City Schools Kelvin Cyrus told the Citizen-Times.

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460, [email protected]. Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC

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Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works as a Senior Writer and Researcher at the NC Public School Forum. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution and an Education Specialist at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. [email protected]