Last week, the General Assembly passed a measure that will provide each school in Virginia with a letter grade to measure their achievement — A through F, just like its students get.
The bill, proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, requires the grading be implemented by 2015.
On its face, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the proposal, which McDonnell is expected to sign into law in a few weeks. Increased accountability and public disclosure is favored.
Even so, one wonders how the simplification of school grading (schools have always been evaluated by different metrics) solves a problem for Virginia.
A not dissimilar evaluation was made part of the unpopular “No Child Left Behind” federal program. Testing was used to evaluate individual student performance and these percentages were used to grade schools and school systems. While the methodology was problematic and led to instances of “teaching to the test,” the underlying motivation was sound. If the school is using federal funds, it must show accountability and improvement.
And the same goes for this new state grading system. Each school system — including Fairfax County’s — receives money from Virginia, so it should be accountable for how well that money is used.
And what happens when a school gets graded? For successful schools, there will be some who demand more money go into that school to reward its accomplishment and ensure continued progress. And there will certainly be others who ask if an A-rated school would be able to accomplish B-plus achievements with less money.
With unsuccessful schools — McDonnell has been quoted as expecting 40 to 50 schools statewide to receive a D or F rating when the system kicks in — there remains a question about consequences. No taxpayer wants to hear that their taxes are paying for even a C-rated school. If a school is struggling, should it receive more money to help it bridge the gap or is that sending good money after bad?
And if most schools are receiving an A or B rating, does that mean we’re setting the bar too low?
The state metric to grade a school’s performance remains somewhat fuzzy, although the legislation includes a provision that it use both state and federal requirements.
Different metrics produce different results. Some parents look at high school SAT scores while others look at graduation rates. Some suggest looking at the percentage of students going to college or their success there. The Washington Post Challenge Index grades schools on how many students take the AP exams, while No Child Left Behind gauges ongoing improvement across different student groups. The fiscally minded will weigh cost-per-pupil and some will simply ask about student and parent satisfaction. What about the variety of programs and studies against success in core subjects?
In the end, there is simply no single way to grade a school. It has to be a balancing between approaches—and how good a school is largely depends on what a parent is looking for and what their kids need.
But more importantly, education is something that happens to individuals — not schools or even classrooms. The real test is how your kid is doing. There are certain kids in underperforming schools who are receiving an excellent education because of individual teachers and the child’s own initiative and drive. Alternatively, there are phenomenal schools that just can’t reach certain kids.
When school grades come out, we’re likely to see some gnashing of teeth at PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences for B-rated schools. Certain ZIP codes and homes are likely to jump in value as parents try to position themselves in the “best” school zone. Fractious attendance zone battles such as the one involving Annandale High School’s pyramid last year will only get worse.
We certainly welcome a grading system for schools, but parents need to understand that despite the ease and simplicity of an A to F score, they’re really going to have to dig a little deeper to figure out if this A-rated school is the right one for their child.