The fraudulence of school grades

Quick: can you tell me how your school grade is calculated?

There was a time a few years ago when I would dutifully trudge through the equation each year so I could point out its absurdities. I’ve since decided it’s not worth my time.

The most recent edition of school grades came out last week. And I received an email from someone asking about my plan for improving school grades. Here is how I responded, with some minor tweaks for clarity:

I reject the school grade concept as a measurement. No one can say how they are calculated. They are not consistent from year to year. They are not helpful in assessing individual educational progress. They are political tools. If getting an F or a D actually drove resources and elite teacher programs toward F or D schools, I might think differently. But it doesn’t. It’s just an empty branding exercise. So I won’t be defining success by school grade. Turning Polk County from a C to an A district is not my goal. Because we can’t control it.

I’ll be defining success numerically by teacher and student retention (the teacher shortage is the biggest problem we face, compounded by the fact that we’ve made the profession miserable enough that we’re chasing away our best teachers); by graduation rate; by college acceptance rate; by actual test score performance against statistical prediction. If a rich school and a poor school get the same score, the poor school is outperforming the rich school. I want to know who is overachieving or underachieving.

My plan to improve performance generally starts in placing more autonomy with teachers and principals — and aggressively improving the support culture at the district level, which is non-existent and actually harmful to schools today. That means personnel changes. It starts with the School Board Attorney, who is a powerful impediment to any serious cultural change.

But you should know, there are no miracle plans to turn a C-district to an A. Indeed, I doubt the state would ever allow it. They will only give out so many As. If Polk gets close, they’ll just recalibrate the calculation. The only thing school grades are good for is to allow a parent to say, “My kid goes to an A school.” I care about the individual educational experience, which is necessarily subjective. But I’m comfortable with subjectivity. And I find that objective numbers often are not objective at all.

That was before I read The Ledger’s half-hearted story about this year’s grades. Indeed, Polk’s pattern matched the state’s almost perfectly it seems. Tallahassee engineered the grade system to produce fewer As and fewer Fs. That’s what happened statewide. And it’s what happened in Polk. It tells us nothing remotely useful. The Polk School District is deeply foolish to make “A” district status part of its strategic plan. One should never create a goal or define success for oneself or organization that some other organization controls through simple manipulation.

So when Madison Fantozzi calls me next year to ask about school grades, I can tell you right now the quote I’ll give: “I don’t care. It’s a stupid measurement dreamed up by distant politicians for political reasons. I’m focused on treating our kids like human beings and preparing them for long rich lives. Tallahassee can engineer the grades however it wants to. I’ve got much more important and useful ideas to pursue.”

8 thoughts on “The fraudulence of school grades

  1. amen, the grades can be manipulated so many different ways to fit the profile,(that can be changed on a whim also!

  2. AS a teacher with over 30 years experience, I can only say one thing: How can I contribute to your campaign? Please allow teachers to teach!

  3. Billy,
    Tied to the school grade thing (if you do scrutinize the published data) is that, with VERY few exceptions, those schools that are classified 100% financially-disadvantaged families, have a school grade of “C” or lower. For those non-magnet, non-charter schools who have scored a “B” or an “A” … their financial classification is no where near 100% financially disadvantaged. Looking at magnet and charter schools, the demographic is even more profoundly tipped in the positive financial ballpark. To make comparisons between schools is utterly ridiculous since it is virtually the same as comparing apples to cottage cheese … None are even in the SAME food group. I have never understood why the “haves” continue to be rewarded while “the have nots” continue to work our tails off for these children (as we will continue to do day-in-and-day-out), but to put us all in the same school basket is ludicrous. Resources need to help ALL students achieve success and encourage ALL educators to continue to work toward THAT goal. We are NOT making this an attractive profession to pursue … Teachers will continue to leave and there will be fewer good educators to fill the void until the pendulum swings back … Good luck with your campaign!

  4. Best of luck in your endeavors and campaign! If Greg or I were still in Lakeland, we would be supporting you and your pursuit for membership with the Polk County School Board!

  5. As with this years EOY scale scores, the state waits until the data is in and calculates a bell curve. So most of us are in the middle. Unfortunately what data is picked changes from year to year, and many categories of data are contradictory. If you push kids through to help your graduation rate, state test scores drop. If you hold kids accountable for attendance and behavior, which increase learning, retention rate drops.

    The best measure of how our schools are doing is how colleges, universities and employers feel about our students. That is what we should try to maximize, not a floating grade. As a secondary teacher I can tell you I am concerned about the students we are sending directly into the workforce. unfortunately we allow poor behavior because of the negative school grade consequences if we enforce the rules we have.

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