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Virginia schools may soon be getting new report cards.

Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have passed a bill that would require the Virginia Department of Education to develop an A-F grading system for schools, to replace the current four-category system of tracking school progress.

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) advocated the change as part of a package of education-related bills.

“The challenge we’ve got right now is that our school grading system is just really not that clear,” McDonnell said. “It is one that is couched in some bureaucratic language that is incomprehensible for parents to understand.”

Many educators, on the other hand, opposed the bill.

Jim Baldwin, executive director of the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, said his organization supported many of the governor’s proposals but believes this one is a wasted effort.

“We have a system in place that tells us what we need to know,” Baldwin said. “It has fully identified the schools that need work, and that is where our attention should be.”

Under the current system, schools are listed as fully accredited, accredited with warning, conditionally accredited or accreditation denied. The ratings are based on students’ scores on state Standards of Learning tests.

The new system would instead translate test scores to a letter grade.

McDonnell said this makes it easier for parents to understand how their local school is doing because everyone is familiar with what an ‘A’ means versus an ‘F.’

However, Baldwin notes that many school systems, including Fairfax County, have stopped using letter grades at the elementary school level in favor of more nuanced evaluation systems.

The proposed letter grading system is based on one implemented in Florida in 1999. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) joined McDonnell in a news conference Friday to advocate for the bill.

“Of all the things we did, grading schools was one of the things that had the quickest impact,” Bush said.

The letter grades brought more attention to schools that needed help and got local school boards, parents and communities more invested in improving those schools, he said.

Unlike Virginia, Florida did not have a grading system for its schools at the time it implemented the letter grades.

According to rankings posted on the Florida Department of Education website, schools there received the highest grades in 2006 and the numbers of ‘A’ schools have been declining in the last couple of years while the numbers of ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools have increased.

Baldwin said the members of his organization are concerned that, due to the timing of the proposed changes, the letter grades are going to make Virginia schools appear to be in worse shape than they actually are.

For example, the benchmarks that a school must meet to earn a passing grade are increasing and the state is introducing new SOL tests.

“Anytime you introduce a new test you typically have a depression of scores,” Baldwin said. Introducing the new grading system at the same time “will only make us look bad,” he said.

McDonnell said he expects the changes to create some turbulence, but he believes the system will prove beneficial in the end. He hopes to have the new grading system in place by July 1.

Based on preliminary assessments, McDonnell said he expects that about 40 to 50 schools statewide will fall into the ‘D’ or ‘F’ categories.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com