State Board of Education Approves A-F School Grading System
When asked what grade I would give the state legislature on the recently passed A-F Grading System Bill, I responded with a “D” (and that was primarily for effort). It certainly wasn’t for creative thinking, since they are only copying other states failed systems. It couldn’t be for collaboration with superintendents or school boards, since there was no collaboration. And it couldn’t be for having a well thought out plan for measuring a school’s grade. The State Board of Education went through three attempts before they could present a system that they were willing to vote on, and then settled on a proposal only because of a mandate by the legislature.
The original proposal by the legislature used an over simplified version of the accreditation system. This meant that a school could earn an A or B in each of the core areas with the exception of one and earned a score of C, missing the B grade by one percentage. Due to the fact that under this system a school’s rating can only be as high as its lowest score, the school is then assigned an overall score of C (a situation which one of our schools actually faced this year). As a parent, how would you feel if your child brought home all A’ & B’s with one C, and his Grade Point Average ranked him as a C student? In an effort to simplify the process, they distorted the true meaning of a grading system by only giving one, inaccurate final grade.
Next, the Department of Education tried coming up with an equitable way of grading a school using a sophisticated point system which turned out to be more complicated than the state assessment system. When the Department of Education (DOE) gave it to school divisions as a preliminary pilot, all divisions reported back that they could not calculate what grade their schools would get because of a lack of data. They were trying to give points for growth over a period of time, when the system had only been in place for one year. That system was abandoned, and now we have the third version which was eventually passed by the State Board of Education.
If you spoke to members of the State Board, they would tell you they were given a task which was impossible to accomplish in a fair and accurate way. The problem with the current approved system is that it is based on assumptions that are not measureable, at least not under the current testing format. According to the press release by the Governor’s Office, an A-F grading system was approved “that will assign letter grades to schools based on the percentages of students demonstrating proficiency, academic growth and college and career readiness”. It also states that for elementary and middle schools, “50 percent of the grade of an elementary or middle school will be based on overall proficiency in English, mathematics, science and history/social science; 25 percent on overall growth in English and mathematics; and 25 percent on growth in English and mathematics among the school’s lowest-performing students.” Schools can also earn bonus points for the percentage of students earning advanced scores on SOL tests.
The current SOL assessments are designed to measure proficiency. They are not designed to measure individual student growth. To measure growth, a similar test must be given year after year over a minimum period of three years. In math for example, to measure how a student does one year in Algebra I and compare it to how she did in geometry the next year is measuring two different skill sets. If their brain is wired to follow a logical algebraic formula, but lacks the ability to use spatial concepts for geometry, their scores will drop and a growth score will reflect a decline when actually it is measuring two separate concepts.
Two years ago, the math assessment was revised and made more rigorous. Composite scores dropped across the state by 20-30 points. It was not because the students knew less about math, but the test was made much harder. This past year, a similar revision took place in the English and science assessments, and a comparable drop in statewide scores occurred. By only using one year’s worth of data, nearly all schools would have received a decreasing growth score on their report card. Even if this will be the second year of a revised SOL, the grade will still be based on one year of growth. This means some schools will have mastered the new standards and receive higher scores, and other schools will be the victim of unforeseen consequences and receive a low grade. In order to use a growth score, a minimum of three years of testing data needs to be used to average out the results.
Unless a growth model is built into the testing process years ahead of implementation, it does not measure what the public thinks it is measuring. For example, if a class of 6th grade students scores 75% on their SOL reading, and next year’s class of 6th graders scores 78% on the same SOL test, what kind of growth does that measure? Not individual student growth, because it is a different group of students.
Zip Code Trap
A recent study done by the Bristol School Division, Emory and Henry College, and Virginia Tech shows that many poor and rural zip codes actually do a better job of educating the under privileged and high risk student population than the well-funded suburbs represented by high socio-economic zip codes. Unfortunately, the proportion of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch make up a much larger percentage of the student population in certain zip codes, therefore skewing the total score of a school’s grade. (See Bristol Chart)
According to the current rubric passed by the State Board of Education, the “lowest-performing students” will be counted twice in the growth formula and 3 times overall. This has a multiple factor for low performing divisions. While all divisions can earn bonus points for advanced scores, the higher performing school (which doesn’t need the bonus points) can make up for their small population of “lowest-performers”, but disadvantaged schools do not have the pool of advanced students to make up for their larger group of “lowest-performers”.
Key Points to Consider About the A-F Grading System:
The bottom line is unless the state has a well-developed system to measure growth and a fair formula for grading diverse schools (and they don’t), they should stay out of the grading system! Leave measuring student progress to the educators who know how to evaluate a student’s ability. We have an accountability system in place to measure schools. As imperfect as it is, we don’t need it complicated by adding an artificial grading system which only results in confusion regarding the ability of our schools to provide a quality education in the 21st century.