What Virginians don’t know about new A-F school grading system

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has now pushed through a new evaluation system that will assign A-through-F grades to each public school, based largely on students’ standardized test scores. The state Board of Education just approved criteria (see below) for the new scheme, which was part of the governor’s 2013 school reform efforts. What Virginians don’t know, because McDonnell hasn’t mentioned it, is that the system he used as a model for his plans is in tatters.

The system was pioneered in Florida when Jeb Bush was governor from 1999 to 2007 as part of Bush’s push for corporate-influenced, standardized test-based reform, and it was used as a model in some 15 other states. The scheme involves more than simply assigning grades to schools; high stakes are involved, as schools can be closed if they get too many successive low grades.

When McDonnell was trying to sell the grading system to the Virginia legislature earlier this year, he sought help from Bush; the former governor praised McDonnell’s plans in a teleconference, saying that the scheme had helped improve schools in Florida. In reality, the Florida system has been so plagued with problems that the Florida Association of District School Superintendents on Thursday urged state officials to revamp the system and released a proposal to eliminate the letter grades. The association’s Web site says:

Florida’s current accountability system is no longer credible in the eyes of the public — from the adoption of new standards to the nationally recognized awarding of school grades. Unless public confidence is restored, the entire system is at risk.

To that end, Florida must realign and revamp the accountability system and regain the trust of students, teachers, parents and Floridians. Otherwise, the system will buckle due to the unrealistic expectations of the individual components of the system and the impending implementation date of 2014-2015.

Researchers have also shown that the system doesn’t work well; for example, read this post analyzing the Florida results, by Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute.

Other states have had other problems with school grading systems they adopted. A new study of Oklahoma’s A-through-F school-grading system found, for example, that tiny differences in student standardized test scores can mean the difference between being an A or an F school. The system in Michigan, which assigns colors to schools rather than letters, just started a few months ago but already is being challenged. Why? Because, as it turns out, parents don’t understand what the colors mean, and, as in Oklahoma (and other states), the formula for making judgments about those schools is flawed. Some Michigan schools known to be high-performing were labeled “red” — indicating poor performance — while new schools that had no data were designated green, the best color rating.

The first letter grades in Virginia will be announced for the 2014-2015 school year, according to a release by the Virginia Education Department, which also says:

Under the system adopted by the board, 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. Elementary and middle schools also can earn a capped number of bonus points based on the percentage of students earning advanced scores on Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in the four core content areas and for meeting all federal accountability benchmarks. The A-F grading system was developed after months of thoughtful consideration and research as well as significant input from stakeholders, including parents, educators, school and community leaders.

For high schools, 33 percent of the grade will be based on overall proficiency in English, mathematics, science and history/social science; 25 percent will be based on indicators of college and career readiness, such as graduation rates, college credits earned and completion of advanced career and technical education (CTE) programs; eight percent will be based on participation in dual-credit courses and board-approved CTE assessments; 17 percent will be based on growth toward college and career readiness; and 17 percent will be based on growth toward college and career readiness among students at risk of not graduating. High schools also can earn a capped number of bonus points based on advanced performance on SOL assessments and for meeting all federal accountability goals.

In Virginia, meanwhile, there is growing resistance to the examinations the state uses to evaluate students. More than 35 school boards across Virginia, as well as some chambers of commerce and other groups, have passed resolutions calling on education officials to revamp the Standards of Learning testing system in what amounts to growing pushback to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s school-reform agenda. Why?

The resolutions say that there is “little research” to show that students “will be better prepared to succeed in their careers and college” by taking the 34 standardized tests the state gives to each child between grades three and 11. (Children actually take more than 34; teachers give interim tests, too.) They ask the Virginia General Assembly to “create a new accountability system” that “encompasses balanced assessments, reflects greater validity, uses more cost efficient sampling techniques and other external evaluation arrangements, allows for expedited test retakes, and more accurately reflects what students know.”

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | November 23, 2013