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A-F School Grades Make Sense for Virginia

• Adam Peshek

School accountability systems should serve two functions: they should define and measure the essential objectives that schools should meet and they should clearly communicate how schools are measuring up against those objectives. In that spirit, Virginia lawmakers approved an A-F system last year that would drastically improve the state’s current system by creating a fairer measurement system and replace vague performance labels with A-F labels – the most prolific descriptors in education. Unfortunately, shifting politics and a commitment to the status quo are causing legislators to backtrack from their commitment from just a year ago.

For more than a decade, schools in Virginia have earned performance ratings under a “standards of accreditation” system. The ratings are based entirely on the number of students that pass tests in math, English, history and science. There is little wiggle room – either students meet the bar or they don’t. Focusing entirely on proficiency is a last-century method that puts schools at a disadvantage for having high numbers of low-performing or otherwise challenging students.

For example, suppose a school receives a student that is four grade-levels behind in reading and moves that student up to just one grade-level behind by the end of the year. The ability to instill three years of learning in one year is an amazing feat that deserves recognition. Unfortunately, the current accreditation system would label the school’s work a failure since the student did not meet the static proficiency benchmark.

So it’s puzzling when opponents of the A-F system claim that it “only grades poverty.” The system, now delayed by the legislature, would level the playing field by giving equal status to proficiency and growth. Half of a school’s score would continue to be based on the number of students that pass state tests. But the other half would be based on whether or not individual students are growing each year. For students that are behind, schools would be expected to move them closer to grade level each year. Likewise, schools would be expected to keep students at grade level once they meet it.

Schools that work tirelessly to improve the learning of Virginia’s most challenging students will finally get the acknowledgement they deserve. Only for schools that are content keeping students below grade level will flounder under an accountability system that recognizes growth.

Empowering the Public with Transparent Information

The system also brings meaning to Virginia’s school ratings.

Consider the state’s current labels: “Fully Accredited,” “Accredited with Warning,” “Accreditation Denied,” “Provisionally Accredited,” and “Conditionally Accredited.” These labels are vague, bureaucratic, and hold no meaning in the everyday lives of students, parents, or the media.

On the other hand, A, B, C, D and F are the most ubiquitous labels in education. The public intuitively understands the difference between a “D” and a “B” grade. While eyes may glaze-over at the mention of an Accreditation Denied school, parents certainly wake up when they hear their school earned an “F.” They know that a “C” means that there is still work to be done. Everyone strives for an “A.”

Under the plan adopted by the State Board of Education in November, an estimated 80 to 85 percent of schools in the state would earn an “A” or “B” rating and one-percent would earn an “F.” This is the same proportion of schools that are rated “Fully Accredited” or “Accreditation Denied” under the current system.

Swapping out five vague labels for five meaningful labels seems like a no-brainer. But even the smallest change can shake up the status quo – which can be threatening for those within a sector that often prioritizes stability over progress.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, dozens of legislators and every major education union mounted a campaign against the system, saying the use of A-F labels amounts to a “scarlet letter” that “stigmatizes students.”

So, A-F grades are fine for students, but it will stigmatize them to use the labels on their school? There’s no doubt that most students would like the same treatment, replacing their meaningful “C” report cards with a vague “Accredited with Warning” grade. As anticipated, parents would likely scratch their heads wondering whether they should go in for a teacher conference or stick the grade on the fridge.

When performance labels are good enough for students but scarlet letters for adults, you can be sure that you have an education system centered on the interest of adults, not students. Let’s return to the focus of the 2013 legislative session and create a clear, transparent and commonsense accountability system for Virginia schools.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.