Touting school grades bolsters dubious policy

Those of us who advocate for public schools tend to blame outside forces when we lament the move to grading schools on an A-to-F scale. In Indiana, we may blame former Gov. Mitch Daniels, former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, state legislators, business groups and others.

MCCSC bannerBut public schools and school districts have helped validate this questionable policy. When they brag about their own grades, they’re endorsing the system as a measure of school quality.

Some of what they’re doing is old-fashioned public relations. At a time when public education is under attack, schools and districts can point to high grades to defend their reputation. “See?” they’re saying. “Our schools aren’t ‘failing’ like some of those public schools you hear about.”

And as public schools compete for students with charter schools and private schools, they are likely trumpet any endorsement they get. After all, charter schools are doing it – for example, here and here and here.

But Indiana school grades are based mostly on test scores, and research suggests test scores tell us more about students’ socioeconomic status than about the effectiveness of their schools. At best, grading schools from A to F is simplistic. At worst, it does real harm by labeling schools and students.

The state’s 2018 grades were released this month; predictably, low-poverty schools got the best grades.

When schools and their supporters tout their A grades, they’re implying they are better than others. When a district declares itself an “Indiana Department of Education ‘A’ school corporation,” it’s pronouncing the grades legitimate.

What message does that send to the schools in the corporation – and their students and teachers – that fall short of an A?

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