Going Beyond A-F in Virginia

Going Beyond A-F in Virginia

— To the Editor:

In one year, Virginia is slated to start rating schools with a simple A to F grade. This rating system, which Jeb Bush started when he was Governor in Florida, received some negative press this month when a similar Indiana program showed the dangers of using one metric to rate

schools. An Indiana official had adjusted grading methods for a politically connected charter school, exposing the risks of overly simplistic school rankings and changing the scores of about 165 schools in the process. With Virginia slated to start using an A-F school ranking in 2014, this story, among other factors, should give us pause.

A-F is intended to give the public a snapshot of what is happening in Virginia’s schools by creating simple rankings for how schools stack up.

Easy-to-understand school ratings are certainly needed. The problem is that education is more complex than one simple grade. Our kids don’t get one grade for their work. They get grades for each subject. We do that on purpose to understand a student’s strengths and weaknesses. Looking at recent SOL scores, the variance between subjects, grades and different student groups are stark. It is almost impossible to compare those differences with one grade. Applied to Virginia’s current method of accrediting schools, it also has the potential to exacerbate the challenges we face with low-income students in Virginia.

In Virginia, for a school to be deemed successful, or accredited, it is not required to meet academic expectations for students in each income and ethnic group. Instead, scores are averaged across a school. To use Alexandria as an example, we have one elementary school that is accredited by the state, passes all the state standards and is highly desired by parents. We have another school that is subject to a state takeover because of its low average test scores. When you compare these schools by their test scores for low-income students though, the one at risk of a state takeover does better. Looking at an A-F system, how do you compare these schools? Why is one considered failing when another, with worse performance for similar students, isn’t? Poverty, English language learners and other factors can impact test performance and are important challenges to address throughout Virginia’s school districts.

Our school grading system needs to expose aspects of our schools that need more attention so that we can adapt and compare techniques that are working and those that are not.

Since family income is a significant predictor of test scores, we have to be careful to not let A-F simply become a de-facto ranking of schools by average parent income. Our A-F implementation needs to expose all of the data that goes into the final letter grade. One school may be doing great in math, but have problems with reading. Another may be doing a great job bringing up the achievement of lower income students, but not making any significant progress with its middle-income students.

Exposing these differences is a critical part of empowering communities with useful information about their schools.

Comprehensive information will show parents and communities how their schools truly stack up. Transparently showing the underlying information behind a school’s grade in simple and clear terms will help prevent the rigging of grades as happened in Indiana. We also should go further and make sure our accreditation system forces Virginia to pay attention to kids from every background, whether they are a small portion or the majority in a school.

I know the Board of Education is looking at these issues as it grapples with a fair A-F system. The legislature didn’t give them a lot of time to do this, so it is going to be a stretch. If more time is needed, we should grant it. It would be a mistake to let haste turn A-F into a tool to mask what is truly happening in our schools.

Rob Krupicka