FOR months, some administrators have loudly objected to the state's new A-F grading system for schools. Now, the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administrators and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association have released a study declaring the grades “have statistical limitations that jeopardize their validity, reliability and usefulness.”
Gosh, who would have guessed a study commissioned by administrators would line up so perfectly with the views of those administrators?
The report is the latest attempt by opponents of accountability and transparency to roll back the A-F grading system, which they view as flawed mostly because it's easily understood. The report tries to obscure that clarity by applying a thick layer of statistical jargon and obsessing over minutia.
We don't doubt revisions could fine-tune school-performance measurements and increase the grading system's effectiveness. But that doesn't require trashing the whole system, particularly given the debatable claims of this report and its authors.
Under the current system, University of Oklahoma researcher Patrick Forsyth declared, when you are “confronted with the grade for one school, you're not sure what that means.” Really? We've noticed no such problem. Parents seemed to quickly grasp that a D or F grade indicates lackluster school performance.
Researcher Robert L. Linn argues attendance and graduation “are poor indicators of school effectiveness.” We doubt that parents agree. Most people believe the goal of a school system is to get kids across the graduation finish line with a diploma. No one looks at a dropout factory and thinks, “I hope my child gets sent there!”
The A-F grading system's focus on attendance has led some communities, such as Tulsa, to consider beefing up truancy regulations. That's a good thing. Children can't learn if they aren't in school.
While Forsyth had no problem declaring the current A-F system is “not salvageable in its current form,” the report's recommendations for improvement were notably vague. It called for using “multiple school indicators” (something already occurring) and developing a “balanced performance measurement plan” aligned with schools' “strategic goals.” What does this mean? Your guess is as good as ours.
Our favorite recommendation was the call for “valid and reliable measures of school climate, motivation and the dispositions of school role groups longitudinally.” Is there really a universally embraced statistical measurement of “motivation”? And how is that a more valid performance indicator than students' academic test results?
Some kernels of wheat may be found among the report's chaff. If so, policymakers should take those critiques under advisement. But it would be a mistake to roll back this important reform and take years to implement a replacement (as endorsed by the report's authors), especially since the report says the state should make “explicit the limitations of the accountability system and warn of its inappropriate use for high-stakes decision making.” In other words, even after changing the system, they think state officials should loudly declare that the resulting school grades shouldn't be taken seriously.
Forsyth said, “Credible assessment is not controversial.” That's naive. The forces of the status quo — including many administrators funding this report — are certain to loudly criticize any system painting their districts in anything but glowing terms.
Professorial hired guns can give critics of the system a veneer of academic respectability. This doesn't mean they're right. A-F is a good reform increasing public awareness.
Policymakers shouldn't back away from it.