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Families Deserve the Truth from School Grades

• Patricia Levesque

This is the eighth installment in a series by ExcelinEd CEO Patricia Levesque, designed to give states guidance on how they can use the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to advance student achievement.

Read previous posts: 

  1. School Accountability Under ESSA
  2. Focus School Accountability on Results
  3. Balancing Proficiency and Growth in School Accountability
  4. Developing Honest, Transparent and Effective Accountability Systems
  5. Should Attendance, Discipline & School Safety Influence School Report Cards?
  6. High School Accountability & Advanced Coursework
  7. Criterion-based v. Norm-referenced: Which testing model offers parents relevant information?

father daughter walking to school

Over the last several years, most states have upgraded their academic standards as well as the assessments used to measure whether students are meeting the standards.

Now, states are preparing to redesign—or adjust—their accountability systems to bring them into compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). I think we all hope that these changes have the effect of raising the rigor of the expectations that states have for their schools and their students.

I also know it is inevitable that when rigor is increased, student test scores and school summative grades initially will decline. But once teachers and students adapt to the higher expectations, the scores will begin trending back up.

This is how we drive better learning gains—through a continuous but realistic raising of the academic bar.

Experiencing lower test scores and lower grades can be a painful process for some schools—for example those that have earned A or B grades but now find themselves dropping to a C or lower.

One unfortunate response can be to put “floors” under the grades.

For example, schools may be protected from dropping more than a single letter grade in a year. So a school that in reality dropped from a B to a D instead would be given a C.

Another method is to set a required number of F schools—for example, the bottom performing 5 percent.

We understand the pressure to take such action.

Nobody wants to see a large decline in school grades. Or a sharp increase in the number of failing schools.

School superintendents have complained that a sudden drop in grades delivers the wrong message to the public—that the quality of their schools has declined. In fact, students could be performing better and schools still could see grades drop.

I do not disagree with any of this. Schools work hard to improve their grades. And once they have grown comfortable with what it takes to get there, it is hard to tell them that the expectations now are going to be raised.

But the alternative is stagnation in student outcomes. Our goal is to elevate all students to a college- or career-ready level before high school graduation. Right now, as college entrance exams reveal and as employers are telling us, we are falling woefully short of that goal.

Methodically and realistically increasing expectations is a must.

Sparing schools from an accurate grade during such transitions does the students in them no favors.

The purpose of a school grade is to give parents a quick, intuitive tool for measuring school quality. If the grades are inflated, parents are being misled and the pressure for school improvement is diminished.

Low grades are a loud-and-clear message that schools need to do better in terms of student achievement and growth. It is a message that can’t be ignored.

And where it needs to be amplified, rather than muted, is in schools where students are struggling the most. Hiding that under the guise of compassion—not wanting to stigmatize the students—takes us back to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

When these students graduate, they will have to compete with all other students nationally and even globally. They will have to have the same skills or knowledge, or they will get left out.

If they are far off track in getting there, that is not information we should hide or dilute. Instead we should acknowledge it and act on it.

For more resources and information concerning the Every Student Succeeds Act, visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library.

About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at