National Edition

School grading systems: a hot topic around the nation

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3 2013 11:30 p.m. MDT

Proponents say that giving public schools A to F grades makes them more accountable and gives parents clear choices. Detractors say the grades tell more about the prosperity of school neighborhoods than the quality of their instruction.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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Handing out grades to the best schools of Fort Wayne, Ind., always gave school board president Mark GiaQuinta a queasy feeling. GiaQuinta imagined staff from his district’s toughest urban schools watching the televised ceremony and asking, “Why not me, after what I accomplished today?”

Proponents say giving letter grades to schools — usually on the basis of students’ standardized test scores — focuses attention on struggling schools and heightens parents’ ability to choose the best schools for their children. Detractors say the school grades tell more about the prosperity of school neighborhoods than the quality of schools, and are a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t allow for differences in circumstances.

School grading systems have both merits and caveats, said Michael Q. McShane, a research fellow for American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "They empower people with clear information about how a school is performing by sorting through data for parents, but it is difficult to boil down everything that we want from schools in one letter grade," McShane said.

Fifteen states now have A-F school grading systems, and about 10 other states have similar programs that use stars or labels. Utah’s school grading system, which rolled out Sept. 3, is among a bevy of new accountability measures in states around the nation. In the past year, such efforts were adopted in Arkansas, Maine, Ohio and Virgina. Utah’s system was adopted earlier, but its roll-out was delayed until this fall.

Depending on the state, failing schools can face such sanctions as closure, funding cuts or being taken over by the state. Schools earning high grades or improving their grades typically receive recognition and financial rewards.

One thing is certain: the number of states implementing A to F grading systems for schools is growing across the nation, fueled by successful results in Florida.

A growing movement

Florida blazed the trail for other state school grading systems in 1999 as part of education reforms led by Jeb Bush during his tenure as Florida’s governor. Florida schools have shown continuing achievement gains on standardized tests since its implementation.

Florida’s plan is based on annual tests in reading and mathematics and gives cash awards to schools that earn an A or improve by a letter grade.

In the years following the roll-out of school grading, Florida saw a drop in the proportion of D- and F-rated schools in the state and a big increase in the number of A-rated schools. When Florida started grading schools, only 21 percent of schools earned an A or B. As of 2011, 74 percent of schools earn an A or B.

Other states, including Alabama, South Carolina and Indiana, followed Florida’s lead, hoping to make similar achievement gains. That hasn’t happened yet, but some of the programs are still young.

Success and scandal

Controversy is brewing around the practice of labeling a school as failing on the basis of students’ year-end testing results, though. In Indiana, GiaQuinta is leading a revolt against his state’s system for grading schools, which he sees as unfair to urban schools that serve diverse, low-income populations. The Fort Wayne Community Schools Board of Trustees drafted a resolution saying it no longer recognizes the state’s A-F accountability system. Indiana’s South Bend School District followed Fort Wayne’s lead.

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