The Destructive World of School Grading
By Michael Weston
“Everyone failed, the exam should have been curved,” he whined. “He didn’t tell us what would be on the test,” she complained. “We didn’t have time to prepare”; “It’s a mistake”; “He grades too hard”; “The test was stupid” … Little Johnny explaining his bad grade to mom? Nope. These are Florida school superintendents explaining in advance, the predicted drop in school grades when they are released later in July.
Introduced by Jeb Bush in his A+ education plan, Florida’s school grading system is a big deal to district superintendents. If appointed, they must explain to their Board; if elected, to their constituents. Real estate prices can change based on the local school’s grade. Failing schools run the risk of state intervention. And, let us not forget the financial aspect. Superintendent bonuses are based in large part on school grades.
The maneuvering around school grades has become an annual dance. When grades go south, superintendents sound like little Johnny with a bad report card. When grades go up, they suffer from an orthopedic injury called repetitive-self-back-slap-syndrome. We bask in the glow of self-credit when our schools show “improvement”; it is just another Tallahassee train-wreck when grades go down.
So what makes for the annual blessing or train-wreck, depending on the year? The Florida Department of Education, under command of the Education Commissioner, has determined the best way to improve the quality of learning is to create goals. These goals of course have financial incentives. In Florida, continuous improvement is the name of the game, thus the goals must change yearly. In the eyes of the DOE, there are two ways to effect this. One can increase the difficulty of the test, and one can raise the bar on which the various quality factors are judged. They do both. At the same time. Every year. Then they undo.
You see, politicians and bureaucrats, unlike our children, have an undo button. Last year when a higher bar on the writing tests caused scores, and thus school grades, to plummet, they took a mulligan. The bar was dropped, the scores became acceptable, and all was well in the Sunshine State. Our kids were still smart. You see, the bureaucratic mind has no problem suspending reality and administratively making our kids smarter.
Graduation rates, gains in the bottom quartile of students, Advanced Placement enrollment, FCAT Scores, End-of-Course Exam scores, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) ….school grades are based on a wide selection of factors, the number of which can change from one year to the next. The weighting of these factors can change. The passing scores for the various tests can change. Unless smarter heads prevail, the new common core testing will also jump into the grading formula. It should be plain to see that school grades have absolutely zero validity as a measure of change in the supposedly underlying educational process.
As there is no valid year-to-year comparisons with school grades, their only possible use would be a single year school-to-school comparison. Telling us what? Test scores are by far the heaviest component in a schools grade. What do test scores actually tell you? How well the school has done, the teachers, the administrators, the district, the state, the curricula, or perhaps, hold on now —- politically incorrect statement coming — the students? You see, students fail; schools do not and teachers do not. Are we ready to ask the real question; why do students fail?
So-called education reformers such as Michelle Rhee, of Washington, DC eraser-gate fame, are quick to point out that the greatest in-school factor contributing to a student’s success is the teacher. Note the quiet qualifier, “in-school.” Do in-school factors have a greater impact than out-of-school factors? The answer is an unqualified no! It has been shown, quite conclusively, that the factor most related to a child’s academic success is his ZIP code. In fact, the current test craze may actually be the most convoluted, expensive, and degrading method ever, of determining a population’s median income.
Is this what school grades tell us, the attendee’s ZIP code? Would it not be easier to look on a map? There is a disconcerting correlation between a school’s free or reduced lunch percentage and school grade.
In Tampa Florida, Sligh Middle School, with a 95% free or reduced lunch rate and 95% minority attendance, consistently underperforms on school grades. Coleman Middle School, serving an affluent enclave in South Tampa, is a consistent top performer. If school grades have any validity, we should be able to bus all the Sligh kids to Coleman, and all the Coleman kids to Sligh, without changing the school grades. Alternatively we could simply exchange the staff, leaving the kids in place, and effect a complete reversal in school grades. Right? Wrong. Why not? ZIP Code.
So if school grades give no valid year-to-year information, and nothing that a map could not tell us school-to-school; are they not just another benign, albeit expensive, bureaucratic nuisance? We should be so lucky. The school grading system is destructive. Known by many names: “The Law of Unintended Consequences,” “The Perverse Incentive,” “Campbell’s Law,” this well studied principle shows that financial incentives cause corruption and gaming of the system. From the moment school grades are released, every principal’s overriding mission is to modify next years results. If graduation rates cost you a letter grade, there WILL be more graduates next year. If low performing math students cost you a letter grade, below grade-level students will be encouraged to enroll elsewhere. If writing scores are the problem, math teachers will be forced to give writing assignments (This recently happened at a Hillsborough County High School. Focus changed again mid-year and several thousand writing assignments were never returned to students).
School grading does not improve schools. More important; school grading does not improve students. School grading does not promote “accountability.” What is accountability anyway? It is pressure. It is punishment. It is retribution. Taking a pound of flesh from Sligh Middle School will not improve the learning experience of its student body. School grading is an expensive, degrading, discriminatory practice that does not advance the cause of education. Our students, schools, and teachers have become footballs in a game of political righteousness.
Students fail. This is the elephant in the room and it is not going away. We need to attack the root causes. We must change the conversation, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.