Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Does an A-F School Ratings System Really Tell Us Anything?

The A-F school rating system was passed by the 83rd Legislative Session, with implementation in the 2017-2018 school year, and I am still trying to figure out who this benefits, if anyone.  This is also a matter of timing, as noted in a recent exchange between Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro and Sen. Larry Taylor, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. 

Mr. Malfaro’s contention is that work underway by the Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, including a March 23 discussion of this rating system by the Commission, may provide an opportunity for the 84th Legislature to again look at this and determine if it best addresses the question on how to evaluate public schools. 

Lost in all of this is how the A-F rating system will address the needs of the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students.  Does it provide an opportunity to address the challenges of struggling campuses or is it a rating that is to be used against the campus?  As I reflect back to my experiences in public schools, we certainly received a grade for our performance on exams.  That by itself might suggest this as a system that makes sense.  Where it differs from my experience, however, is that the grade was used as a reference point in defining areas for improvement; that appears to be lacking here since those advocating for education options see this as a reason to move dollars from public education, not invest to address the issues and challenges.

I wonder as well what impact an A-F rating system will have on the students on that struggling campus.  Many of these campuses are in areas where the majority of the students are economically disadvantaged and they may not have the opportunity to move to another option, even if dollars to do so were made available to them.  I’m also concerned about the stigma attached to a campus and how that impacts the performance of students on that campus.  We were all taught as kids to strive to achieve.  But if these students are told that they are in an environment where they cannot succeed, a great number of them may accept that as the norm and choose to drop out.  The long term ramifications of this stigmatization are dramatic on all stakeholders, not just the students themselves.  Parents and community members may feel that they cannot make a difference (the reality is that they can!) and thus stop trying or fail to participate in the debate about public education.

Mr. Malfaro cited a recent study by the National Education Policy Center that highlighted the fallacies of A-F rating systems, noting that report card systems:
  •           don’t necessarily measure school quality;
  •           do not foster critical thinking;
  •           preclude participation by parents and community members in the deliberation about public schools’ policies; and .
  •          do not consider a broad array of evaluation criteria, including achievement, attendance, and dropout rates.

The NEPC concluded that there is “little credible research on whether letter grades validly measure and express school quality.”

Does this mean we should not evaluate schools and districts?  Not at all, but we should be careful in not forcing the pendulum to move to the extremes.  There will be pros and cons with any evaluation system but the risk is that relying solely on testing does not address the requirements of the students.  Rather than focus on the outcome, as TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told me, we must focus on the process.  If we do that, we will truly Make Education a Priority.


  1. Another question to ask is how do you differentiate a "C" school in Carroll ISD from a "C" school in Dallas ISD?

  2. But what is the real question? No matter what grading system we adapt is will still reflect the students progress or lack of progress. As a society we have become "too soft" on raising expectations for our for our students. I am a 6th grade teacher at a Title 1 school in Texas. My students have the same desire to succeed and be better prepared for what life throws at them. We need to raise the standards so that the students can achieve more. I tell my students that a "C' grade is average, and that they are better than average! I was raised in Texas and the public schools used the A-F grading system. If I received a "C" on a report card of a paper, it was a sign telling me that I needed to work harder to improve. If there is a better system out there that can promote s students desire to improve, I am all for it. Let's not lower the standards for these kids, let's raise the bar and encourage all of them to be better than the day before!

  3. I appreciate the comment, James. I am not advocating eliminating grading systems since I, too, was raised in public schools that used the A-F grading system. My concern isn't the use of an A-F system in general but the relevance of using that to evaluate and grade campuses. I absolutely agree with the need to challenge our students and to continue to raise the bar for them. As a society, we should always strive to motivate kids to do their best ... and then one more.

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