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Originally posted October 10, 2012
Following is the speech Superintendent Dr. Cathy Burden delivered to the State Board of Educatiion on October 4, 2012, regarding school districts' request to delay the A-F grading system. A formal rebuttal of the A-F grading system can be downloaded using the download link above.
Educators here today have felt ethically compelled to speak up to correct the idea that the new A-F system of grading schools might be a legitimate and productive tool that accurately measures schools' performances. Unfortunately, due to statistical flaws and apparent bias against public education built into the details of the grading formula, the current system proposed by the State Department of Education will not further the legislature's intended purpose to provide a clear, uncomplicated, and fair accounting of quality differences within and between our state's schools.
Our complaint is not with "accountability" or with efforts to accurately communicate with our parents and stakeholders. On the contrary, those are worthy goals that would best be accomplished by a comprehensive evaluation of the many variables that impact student performance and school efficacy. Our warning is that the results of the SDE's attempt at assigning grades may do more to misrepresent the success level of a school and mislead the public's understanding of quality education than to inform them properly.
1. The formula derived by the SDE – with minimal input from educators in the state - has yielded a score that is more a simple reflection of a school's demographics than a measure of true school quality or effectiveness. Using my district as an example, 68% of the variance in the A-F grades is accounted for by the free-and-reduced rate alone. Basically, this means that the A-F formula has done little more than to mirror the existing socioeconomic status of a school's student population. The formula for the grade is significantly influenced by student absenteeism and mobility rather than reflecting the impact of instruction, school climate, and parent engagement. When parents look at their child's school grade, I think they expect more than a reflection of free-and-reduced status.
2. Any legitimate grade must be "fair." Since the grade formula purports to compare student progress to an "average," then the SDE should not redefine the meaning of average just to make schools look bad. The SDE calculation of "state average growth rate" has been manipulated to only include scores for students who made gains. This is not an honest reflection of the state average - which also should have included scores that declined or were static from last year. Since this manufactured definition of "average" does not include the change over time for ALL students in the state - only those who improved - it has artificially elevated what is expected and skewed the grades. This unique definition of "average" has resulted in lower grades for most schools and is therefore not a "fair" or representative grade that helps the public see their schools clearly.
3. Other intentional decisions about how to calculate the grades have further impacted their validity. Specifically, grades for performance and growth have been determined by converting a percentage grade to a four-point scale. Since the SDE rounded down, 8 out of 17 of my schools lost credit and got lower grades. The additional arbitrary decision to require a 94 percent to get an A grade is further evidence that there is a concerted attempt built into the formula to portray schools in the most negative light possible.
While we are concerned with the A-F grading formula, there is a second accountability measure being imposed on schools due to the SDE's federal waiver application. The bias in this formula should be of grave concern to the public since the only schools held accountable by this system are larger schools with diverse populations that include higher numbers of black, English Learners, and special education students. The waiver sanctions - which include threats of state takeover - are not equitably assigned based on a rational level of performance but instead discriminate by ignoring the performance of small schools and being overly punitive to large schools even if their student performance would be higher than less accountable smaller schools.
As you can see, the implication that A-F and the waiver designations are fair and straightforward is not accurate and oversimplifies an extremely complex set of formulas. Pervasively however, we see in the decisions of the SDE an effort to denigrate public education to further the agenda of charters and vouchers particularly in the metropolitan areas where privatization might be more lucrative.
The legislative mandate to grade schools should not be a problem but must incorporate transparency, fairness, and objectivity to have legitimacy. As Superintendents from rural, urban and suburban schools, we express "no confidence" in the current methodologies utilized and call on the State Board of Education and legislature to reevaluate the implementation of these flawed and biased systems before moving forward.
Cathy Burden, Ph.D.
Union Public Schools
October 4, 2012