Wednesday, October 19, 2016
By The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: October 19, 2016
IN the years since Oklahoma began issuing A-F letter grades to individual schools, the annual response from many school leaders has been predictable. Those receiving an A or B grade typically don't complain. Those getting a D or F complain that the grading system is flawed.
Yet there's a clear correlation between A-F grading and statewide improvement in student learning, as highlighted at a recent study conducted by the state House Common Education Committee.
Since A-F grading was adopted in Oklahoma in 2011, students' scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests have generally trended up, sometimes dramatically so.
Because NAEP is administered to students across the country, its results are not subject to easy manipulation by state or local officials.
In 2011, Oklahoma fourth-grade students averaged a 215 on the NAEP reading test. By 2015, those scores had jumped to 222. This was the biggest jump seen in Oklahoma fourth-grade reading scores in decades and the first time since 1998 that Oklahoma was above the national average.
The increase coincided with another state law passed in 2011 to prevent some students from advancing to the fourth grade when they read at only a first-grade level, so both laws played a role in raising scores.
But the improvement wasn't confined to fourth-grade reading. Oklahoma's eighth-grade NAEP reading scores have increased since 2011, as has Oklahoma's average fourth-grade NAEP math score, which now matches the national average for the first time this century.
Only in eighth-grade math has Oklahoma declined since A-F grading was implemented. So there's still work to do.
Still, the overall trend of general improvement is in marked contrast what occurred prior to A-F school grading. In fact, Oklahoma has outpaced the rate of national improvement in fourth-grade reading, fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading even in the midst of challenging state budget years. This proves policy changes can have great benefit even when money is tight.
Similar improvement occurred in other states following A-F school grading, including Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Utah.
These results highlight the need to preserve the A-F system in its current form, subject to minor revision. Some school officials want to eliminate letter grades and instead issue only broad reports.
But as Marcus A. Winters, associate professor in the School of Education at Boston University, has noted, “In practice, this provides so much information about a school that it becomes impossible for a parent or curious policymaker to distinguish if it is effective. As a result, ineffective schools simply fly under the radar and feel no strong push to improve.”
That proved true in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio scrapped A-F grading upon his election. Subsequently, Winters' research found low-performing schools improved under the A-F system, but not under de Blasio's grade-free report card system.
Cottonwood School Superintendent John Daniel encouraged Oklahoma lawmakers to preserve the system, saying the report cards provide “useful information.” Daniel said a fellow superintendent once suggested high-poverty Cottonwood was “manipulating the numbers” to get an A report card.
He explained the secret to success was straightforward: “If the students perform well, then the report card stands up for itself.”
Oklahoma's A-F system is working. It is benefiting students by incentivizing a better education system. Lawmakers shouldn't toy with success.