Minda Corso

Grading schools in Lake Wobegon

In Standards and Accountability on October 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm

By: Mike Thomas

It seems that support for an A-F school grading system is contingent on the rigor of the grading system.

The harder it is to get an A, the more pushback there is from the public school bureaucracy and opponents of education reform.

They would prefer we grade schools like we graded kids on my second-grade soccer team: Everybody gets praised for effort. Everybody gets a trophy! All the parents are happy.

And when that doesn’t happen, it is not the fault of the schools but of student assessments and grading methodology.

We see this in Florida. We are seeing it in Indiana and Oklahoma.

Grading formulas include overall test scores of students. But if that was the only metric, the more affluent schools always would excel in grading and the low-income schools always would struggle.

This is in part negated by including student learning gains in the calculation. Even a struggling student can make strong progress in a year. So measuring that progress and applying it to the school’s grade helps level the playing field.

Giving added weight to the learning gains of the lowest performers incentivizes a school to focus more attention on kids who need it the most.

For example, the Florida grading system will penalize a school a letter grade if half the students in the lowest quartile do not demonstrate learning gains on standardized tests.

There have been situations where high-performing schools received a B because their lowest quartile did not make enough improvement.

This approach is coming under attack by school superintendents in Oklahoma. Coasting on your high performers always will be easier than bringing up your low performers.

School officials in Indiana don’t like that the state’s new system of measuring learning gains uses a bell curve.

Kids who tested at the same level the previous year will be grouped together in the current year’s test results. The top third in learning gains will be labeled ‘high growth’ and the bottom third ‘low growth.’

Critics say this bell curve puts students and schools in competition with each other.

Actually, I like that idea and wish they would consider it in Florida.

The goal in education is to ensure each school pushes each student for maximum learning gains, no matter their academic level. When schools know they are in competition with each other, they can’t just aim for a pre-determined target that designates an acceptable learning gain. They have to aim higher because other schools will be doing the same.

Schools have no problem competing on the football field. What is wrong with competing in the classroom?

Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, also likes the concept.

“The fact that the federal government really liked [Indiana’s proposal], I think, speaks volumes to the fact that we’re probably on to something here,” Plucker told StateImpact. “People right, left, and center seem to have problems with the system, to which — in my contrarian nature — I say, ‘Maybe we should be trying this, then.’’

Any grading system will come under attack because educators don’t like the pressure.

But as seen in Florida, pressure is a great motivator. That’s why we need more of it. Seventy-four percent of schools in Florida are graded as A or B. That is not realistic. But attempts to increase rigor always encounter pushback.

I like what the Oklahoman editorial board had to say about criticism of that state’s grading formula:

“The vast majority of schools would have gotten a B or C; 158 would get an A. This is how it should be: An A should signify exceptional quality. The standard for public school performance shouldn’t be “Everyone gets a trophy!”

Mike Thomas (@MikeThomasTweet) 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 mike@excelined.org


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