Customization can lead to eliminating school grades and better accountability

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Florida needs a better system for determining quality and imposing regulatory accountability. School grades are a one-size-fits-all solution. We can do better.

The state of Florida’s latest annual report on the performance of students receiving tax credit scholarships contained these facts: 22.9 percent of scholarship students came from public schools rated “D” or “F” in the prior school year, while 30.3 percent of came from public schools rated “A” or “B.”

School grades are intended to inform parents about the effectiveness of district and charter schools, but tax credit scholarship parents aren’t impressed. Apparently, most of these low-income and working-class parents are using other means to determine which schools will work best for their children.

I was skeptical when Florida first started grading schools.

Schools are not a monolith. As any teacher will attest, there at least five or six distinct mini-schools within a typical district high school. Even smaller elementary schools have several diverse subcultures. Yet schools are assigned a single grade that is supposed to signify a school’s effectiveness for all children.

I was also skeptical because of the strong positive correlation between standardized test scores and family income. Higher-income children, on average, have higher standardized test scores than lower-income students. Since Florida’s school grades are based on standardized test scores, I knew schools serving higher-income students would have the highest test scores and, therefore, the highest grades.

Sure enough, when Florida’s school grades first appeared, schools in affluent communities received As and Bs, while schools in low-income communities received Ds and Fs. To address this issue, the state quickly modified its grading formula to include annual test score gains so schools serving low-income students could increase their grades through gains, even if their absolute scores were still much lower than their peers in the affluent schools.

This modification did help reduce the number of schools receiving Ds and Fs. But it didn’t address the misconception that school grades are an accurate measure of how well a school will meet the needs of every student.

I finally came to appreciate school grades when I realized their true value had nothing to do with helping parents find the best schools for their children. Instead, state government was using these grades to coerce school districts into focusing more attention and resources on under-performing students, most of whom were from low-income families with little political power.

This was a use I could support. School grades have forced school districts to put more resources and effort into helping low-income and minority children, and the results have been impressive. Compared to their peers, low-income and minority students in Florida have made some of the biggest gains in the nation over the past 20 years. The state led the country in reading and math gains on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, and according to an Urban Institute analysis, Florida ranks No. 1, No. 1, No. 3 and No. 8 on the four core NAEP tests, once adjusted for demographics.

Florida’s Advanced Placement test results are also noteworthy. Even though the state has one of the nation’s highest rates of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, it ranks fourth in the percentage of graduating seniors passing AP exams.

Florida – and school grades – deserve credit.

At the same time, we can’t overlook the limitations of a one-size-fits-all regulatory system.

Florida’s low-income fourth graders now rank No. 1 in the nation in reading, after being near the back of the pack 20 years ago. But being No. 1 in reading still means only 30 percent of Florida’s low-income fourth graders are proficient. We can and should celebrate Florida’s pace-setting progress while acknowledging it’s nowhere near enough.

Flaws in school grades have also helped generated ongoing conflict.

I sympathize with teachers who reject evaluation systems that use inadequate and, often, inappropriate data to judge their effectiveness. Holding teachers responsible for student achievement in subjects they aren’t teaching makes no sense. Meanwhile, many middle- and upper-class parents resent the excessive test prep and increased focus on basic skills. It’s not the state’s fault if school districts are not customizing teaching enough to provide remediation for those who need it and enrichment for those who don’t. But a system built on standardization is prone to standardized responses.

Florida needs a better system for determining quality and imposing regulatory accountability. School grades are a one-size-fits-all solution in a pluralistic world. We can do better.

The future of public education is customization. Soon, public education will be able to continuously provide every child with customized learning options. Some of these options will occur in schools; others in venues such as libraries, museums, nature parks, and online. Faced with this plethora of options, parents, students, and teachers will need to access information that will help them choose the best learning options at any given moment. This is the information system that will replace school grades.

Once all parents have the power to choose and pay for their child’s learning options, and once they have the information they need to make good choices, Florida’s state government will no longer need to use school grades to coerce school districts to address the needs of disadvantaged children. Until then, state government should keep using school grades to maintain the political pressure on school districts.

We can and should appreciate the progress school grades have helped spur, particularly for our most disadvantaged students. At the same time, we should acknowledge that better systems are coming – and push to get them here with all deliberate speed.