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A-F School Grades Inform and Engage

• Mike Thomas

The National Education Policy Center has issued a report on the use of A-F letter grades in school accountability systems.

As expected, given its close affiliation with teachers unions and its opposition to education reforms in general, the NEPC was critical.

“Expressing school quality via a single composite grade is flawed,” the report says.

But interestingly enough, the NEPC says nothing about states expressing school quality through a single, composite label. For example, many states classify schools with confusing terms such as Distinguished, Academic Watch or Priority. One state’s report card labels some schools as “continuous improvement” status based on “an index score of 291” with no further explanation.

Instead of labels, Michigan uses colors, grading schools either green, lime, yellow, orange or red.

Idaho uses stars.

Why did five colors and five stars escape scrutiny but not five letters?

The obvious answer is that parents and the public in general react differently to a D than they do an orange or two stars or a fuzzy label. They intuitively know what that D represents – a poor performing school. That puts greater pressure on school districts to address the situation, which is a threat to unions insomuch as ineffective teachers may be part of the problem.

In claiming that grades are “ill-suited to drive school improvement,’’ NEPC ignores a robust body of literature that demonstrates quite the opposite. Studies have shown states with accountability systems have students who improve faster than states without them.

A 2007 study by the Urban Institute found a failing grade led to subsequent and significant academic gains for students. “Specifically,’’ the study said, “when faced with increased accountability pressure, schools appear to focus on low-performing students, lengthen the amount of time devoted to instruction, adopt different ways of organizing the day and learning environment of the students and teachers, increase resources available to teachers, and decrease principal control.’’

A distinguished panel of education researcher from the Koret Taskforce studied the Florida school grading plan and reached this conclusion: “Not only was the measuring stick improved but it also gave schools clear incentives to enhance the performance of their students.”

Such findings are borne out by Florida’s results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. After Florida implemented its grading system, it became one of the nation’s leaders in advancing academic achievement for traditionally disadvantaged students. Florida’s low-income fourth graders now lead the nation in NAEP reading scores.

The NEPC report claims that use of grades alienates parents and reduces their participation in the education of their children. Again, this is counter to the experience in Florida, where high grades are sources of community pride and where low grades are a catalyst for community action. Before grades, the biggest problem that low-income schools faced was a lack of participation by school districts. Year after year, schools failed children, a crisis that continued because it was not exposed.

Exposing failure forced school districts to resolve it in the manner described by the Urban Institute. Schools then elevated their grades and became sources of community pride.

A school grade is not meant to be the sole piece of information presented to parents. States report a significant amount of school information, including test scores, attendance, dropout rates, graduation rates, student demographics and AP participation. The grade is an invitation for parents to delve into that information so they are informed about both the strengths of their schools and the areas that need improvement.

The challenge is making that data easily accessible.

Looking for solutions, ExcelinEd sponsored the My School Information Design Challenge. Offering cash prizes of $35,000, ExcelinEd engaged top designers from around the nation in developing school report cards that present relevant information in a simple, visually engaging manner. The winners were announced in December, with the designs now available for use by states and school districts.

Far from alienating parents, school grades are designed to encourage them to learn more about the schools their children attend. And that knowledge only will serve to improve those schools.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at