Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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.
I have no doubt that those efforts, carried out by hard-working, highly skilled teachers, moved the needle. —Ron Matus

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.

Actions of the rogue districts in Indiana followed a national flap over the practice of grading schools that erupted on Aug. 1. On that day, Florida’s state education commissioner, Tony Bennett, resigned in the wake of allegations that during his previous tenure as Indiana’s education chief, he tweaked the rules for the state's school grading system to benefit a charter school run by a campaign contributor. Though Bennett denied the allegations, which were bolstered by emails published by the Associated Press, he stepped down from his Florida post.

McShane, of American Enterprise Institute, said the best guard against “gaming the system” is transparency.

“States that use these systems should make their methods and all of the data available so that independent folks can analyze the results and make sure there weren’t any shenanigans," he said.

The success of school grading in Florida was called into question earlier this year by the Shanker Institute, a think tank with ties to the American Federation of Teachers. Matthew Di Carlo, a senior fellow at the institute, analyzed the data around Florida’s increase in successful schools after its school grading program began and concluded that over time, the jumps in numbers of A-rated schools in Florida coincided with major changes to the formulas for figuring the grades. At times when the grading criteria remained constant, there was little upward movement in the grades the schools received, the analysis showed.

But others say the success of Florida’s system is real. Ron Matus, of the redefined education reform think tank, notes problems with Florida's grading system, but wrote in an opinion piece for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel that “school grades and other Bush-era policies nudged school districts into putting more time, energy and creativity on the kids who struggle the most.”

“I have no doubt that those efforts, carried out by hard-working, highly skilled teachers, moved the needle,” Matus wrote, noting statistics showing that achievement gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers closed between 2003 and 2011.

Points of contention

Fort Wayne’s resolution against Indiana’s school grading system highlights the general complaints against these types of programs. The resolution said that the letter grades assigned to schools are based on student test scores “without regard to numerous factors that affect those scores, including … the number of students living in poverty, the number of students learning the English language, the number of students with special needs, and the extent of parental involvement.”

Data from the Indiana Department of Education shows that in Indiana’s schools with highest poverty, only 13 percent of schools get A grades. In schools with lowest poverty, 64 percent of schools get A grades.

“Are we going to judge a school on basis of a standardized test, and not all the different characteristics that go into creating a happy learning environment?" GiaQuinta asked, noting that 70 percent of students in his district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a poverty indicator.

Beating the status quo

McShane said that school grading programs are a step in the right direction, despite their flaws. They provide a helpful shortcut for parents seeking information and have the potential to become more sophisticated and accurate in the future, he said. He favors programs that focus on growth measurements that give schools credit for the progress low-performing students make, even when those students fall short of desired score thresholds.

“So long as school grading systems are a part of an evolutionary process towards a more flexible and nimble accountability system, I think they are a good development,” McShane said.

Email: Twitter: @celiarbaker