UNDER Oklahoma's A-F grading of schools, an astounding 57 percent of schools received an A or B. Just nine of 1,744 sites received an F. In any other setting, this would hardly be considered punitive. Yet some school administrators seem to think it's the equivalent of a Bosnian war crime.
These administrators are demanding that state officials respond to a report critical of the A-F system, a report they helped fund through dues to the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administrators and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. Tax dollars that could go to the classroom instead go to OSSBA, and often to CCOSA, financing opposition to reforms that allow citizens to learn if education tax dollars are being used effectively.
Still, if those superintendents want a response, one has already been provided by David N. Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Figlio calls Oklahoma's A-F system “an exemplar of systems of its type, and a model for other states and jurisdictions to follow.”
“Oklahoma's school grading system should be replicated elsewhere, rather than abandoned,” Figlio wrote in a letter sent to the chairman of the state Senate Education Committee. The comments are worth noting because he's a national expert on accountability systems and, more importantly, offered his views without solicitation or payment.
While student proficiency and measures such as dropout and attendance rates are important, Figlio says overreliance on those factors can “invite educators to engage in ‘gaming' behaviors.” He praises Oklahoma's system for balancing those measures with data regarding student growth over time.
“Such a system is far less prone to manipulation — and the oft-cited distortions associated with high-stakes testing — and is also fairer, as it recognizes that schools serving disadvantaged populations have different challenges than do those serving more advantaged populations,” Figlio writes. He praises Oklahoma's concentration on the growth of low-achieving students, and says the “evidence is also clear” that issuing school letter grades provides “tangible measures to parents, community members, and educators, and leads to significant school improvement.”
“If Oklahoma is serious about school accountability,” Figlio said, “the state should not abandon the school grading system currently in place.”
In comparison, superintendents critical of A-F previously endorsed changes that would have given 70 percent of schools an A or B, and slashed the number of D schools by nearly 40 percent. Under their proposal, a school where 60 percent (or more) students weren't proficient in fourth-grade reading, fifth-grade social studies and sixth-grade math would have gotten a C. In other words, they wanted to declare mass failure to be average and acceptable school performance.
While praising Oklahoma's A-F system, Figlio says improvements could be made. He says independent inspectors could conduct top-to-bottom reviews of schools several times annually and issue reports regarding whether school leadership is setting clear expectations for teachers and students, whether there's evidence of across-the-board ambitious instruction, and similar qualitative factors. Figlio said those measurements — which in England are also issued report-card style for individual schools — would be only “a complement, rather than a substitute, for the school grading system.”
So superintendents' concerns about qualitative factors could be addressed — by increasing scrutiny and potentially issuing a second school report card substantially focused on their administrative competence.
Somehow we doubt the administrators would welcome this news.