Value of School Grades

Posted By Kathy Smith

Since school grades were released a few weeks ago, there has been much discussion about what these reflect, comparisons made, and both ire and celebration around the results.

Some results seemed counter-intuitive, such as the “D” grade assigned to Jones Elementary in Springdale, a school that has seen impressive gains over the last several years, and whose principal was recently named Arkansas Elementary Principal of the Year. How could a school that has seen such gains and has recognized leadership based on these get a low grade?

The answer lies in the calculations and purpose of annual school grades.

The grading system, which was designed by a task force of educators and statisticians from across the state, is based on three categories, depending on the school’s grade levels:

  1. Status, or proficiency rates
  2. Growth from the previous year (or for high schools, graduation rate since high schools currently administer End-of-Course exams rather than comprehensive tests each year)
  3. Narrowing the achievement gap between more advantaged and less advantaged students

All agreed the three categories used for the measures were important in assessing a school’s annual progress.

In regard to the purpose, school letter grades for a single year, as with student letter grades, should neither be a final indictment nor a cause for perpetual celebration. Rather, they should be a tool to focus on immediate adjustments. As with student grades, certainly trends will indicate whether those adjustments were effective or whether more focused interventions should occur, which brings us back to Jones Elementary.

While Jones has indeed shown a dramatic increase in Literacy proficiency over the past ten years (34 points), its percentage dropped this past year, from 72% to 65%. The same was true for Math, which dropped from 73% to 69%. Those declines, combined with performance in both Math and Literacy in 60th percentile resulted in the school’s receiving a “D.”

Meanwhile, Bayyari and Parson HIlls, Springdale elementary schools with demographics comparable to Jones were designated as “A” schools. Why? Even though Bayyari’s proficiency in both Math and Literacy was 77% and 79%, respectively, it improved +5 in Math and +2 in Literacy. Parson Hills performance was lower, 71% in Math and 72% in Literacy, but its gains were higher, +4 in Math and +7 in Literacy.

Was it appropriate to celebrate Jones’ success as a school and its leader that has proven it can serve students well? Yes.

Was it appropriate to show that in a window comparing one year’s performance against the school’s goals, Jones didn’t meet growth targets and therefore received a grade that is reflective of the decline? Yes.

Perhaps when an analysis is complete regarding the weights of specific calculations in the grading formula, we will find that improvements need to be made. Given new standards and a new testing system, this will be necessary.

However, due to the posting of school grades, not only at Jones but in schools across the state, school officials are talking among themselves and, perhaps for the first time, with parents and community members about why they received the grades they did and what they plan to do next year to either improve or maintain. And these conversations are being conducted from a data-driven base that everyone understands. I’d submit this is a good thing for the students of Arkansas.

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