Monday, December 13, 2010

School letter grades are "messy and confusing"

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed a new rule assigning letter grades, from A+ to F-, to all Louisiana schools, beginning next October. Supporters said it would make it easier for parents to understand how successful their schools are.

But what will a single letter grade tell you about a school? When little Johnny brings home a report card, he has a grade for each of his subjects, not one lone mark to sum up his whole educational experience.

As Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte writes here, the process for assigning letter grades to schools will be "messy and confusing," not the simple process described by BESE President Penny Dastuge, who defended the new system by saying, "People can relate to grades."

Well, yes. But a grade is a symbol with a deep context, and unless people understand everything that the symbol stands for, it can be very misleading.

In her column, Deslatte raises the issues that the legislature and Gov. Jindal should have considered before passing a law requiring the letter grades:
  • Should a school be rewarded for how much it improved its students' achievement rates and given a better grade even if its overall results still show a large percentage of students performing below their grade level and the state's standards?
  • Is it fair for a school in a poor neighborhood where many students don't have parental support and don't get basic reading training before they enter school be graded against a school in a wealthier neighborhood where more students start off with greater advantages?
  • If you curve the system, will it really provide any useful information to parents and will it meet the intent of what lawmakers and the governor wanted out of the grading scale?
  • Does a letter grading system in some cases discount the strides a school is making or the hard work its teachers are doing? Could it damage morale and make it more harder for a lower-graded school to attract strong teachers and education leaders to help improve it?

In their haste to show that they are committed to anything that can be labeled "school reform," our leaders have saddled schools with yet another bureaucratic layer that won't improve anything, but could contribute to unfair perceptions of public education.

Which just might have been the goal in the first place.

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