When grades don’t grade

Ever since the federal government began requiring states to devise rating systems for their schools, educators across the country have faced a tall order: How to accurately and comprehensively measure school “quality” in a meaningful but also simple enough way for parents to understand and use.

I’m not sure any states have risen to the challenge, but I am convinced that Arkansas’ latest effort, which assigns a single letter grade to schools instead of phrases like “needs improvement,” used last year, falls short.

The letter-grade rating idea is of the “sounds good, works bad” variety that confuses simple with simplistic. The two words differ by only a few letters, but their meanings couldn’t be farther apart.

“Simple” means easily understood. “Simplistic” means treating something complex as though it were simple.

Everybody understands letter grades, right? (Simple)

So let’s use letter grades to rate school quality! (Simplistic)

I wish it were so easy.

The pool from which students are drawn is anything but uniform.

Does anyone really believe that taking one test score on one day for a student population, even weighting for achievement gaps and growth and graduation rates, can possibly produce a single letter grade that represents the totality of a school’s learning environment and opportunity?

In principle, the idea of accountability is crucial to improving schools, and because it consumes billions of dollars in our meager Arkansas budget, we need efficiency in education more than wealthy states might.

But in practice, a letter-grading system is worse than worthless if it not only fails to accurately rate schools, but actually misrates them. A raging complaint in other states has been that good schools get bad grades, and vice versa, because the simplistic approach doesn’t measure school quality as much as it reflects student demographics.

Even adjusting for gaps in target achievement groups can skew results, because more homogeneous schools—rich or poor—get punished less than larger and more diverse ones that have populations with both rich and poor.

According to the data posted Wednesday, there are no “A” high schools in Craighead County.

That will be news to many parents who have students enrolled at one of the county’s nine public high schools.

Technically, the data only tell us there are no high schools whose students scored high enough on math and literacy tests last year to push their point total to 270 or above in the scoring model.

Practically, then, the “school rating” should be called something less global, like maybe the “school math and literacy test score rating.”

As a parent who spent significant time over several years at the Academies at Jonesboro High while my five children attended, as well as other city and county schools and also other 6A-East conference schools, talking to other parents, it’s a miscarriage of grading to say none of them is good enough to earn an A.

I’ll never forget when I got the half-inch-thick curriculum syllabus during sophomore orientation for my oldest daughter—it looked more like what I’d expect from a small college.

Jonesboro holds an academic signing day each year, honoring students whose discipline and study have earned them scholarships. Just like the athletic versions, prestigious universities—like Vanderbilt, Tulane and Yale—were snatching up JHS grads for medicine, engineering, music, art, and more.

The scholarship totals are always staggering ($7.9 million in 2014), but even more impressive are the recognitions of National Merit Finalists, Band All-Americans, Arkansas Governor’s Distinguished Scholars, even a Presidential Scholar one year.

Few high school theater departments anywhere attempt productions of Broadway challenges like Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera; during my tenure as a JHS parent, students turned in triumphant performances of both.

I was continually surprised at the championship caliber of Jonesboro athletic programs. Last year five of JHS’ 15 team sports won state titles, and two others were runners-up.

One of the most telling examples of opportunity being a necessary measure for rating schools is from a student whose parents are friends of mine. Will Brandt is graduating this spring, and will be attending Samford University in Alabama, where he was accepted into the Clark Scholars Program.

That program provides scholarship funds for students pursuing computational biology, which is a new field of study that unites biology, computer science, mathematics and information technology.

Will had elected the STEM Academy (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at Jonesboro, which uniquely prepared him for the Clark Program scholarship. He wouldn’t have had a clue how to fill out the application, he said, except for the computer science and civil engineering courses he took at JHS.

Other parents at other high schools have similar stories about student successes. Their point and mine is there are some fantastic public high schools, which shine in different ways in their respective local communities, and any rating system ought to reflect that rather than ignore it.

Even the state Department of Education warns against reading too much into the A-F grades, and encourages parents to talk to teachers and other parents and visit schools to truly evaluate them.

That’s great advice every parent should heed.


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