Assigning Letter Grades to Schools? The Danger of a Single Performance Indicator

We recently published a commentary in Teachers College Record that revisits aGrades topic we took up in 2014 – the decision by the Arkansas legislature to require the “grading” of schools.   You can read the first portion of the commentary below and finish it up on the Teachers College Record website.  Free access is available for a limited time.

Assigning Letter Grades to Schools?  The Danger of a Single Performance Indicator

Sixteen states require their Departments of Education to assign a single performance indicator such as a “letter grade” to schools within those states. We take a look at the relationship between school grades and poverty in one of these states. Our analysis indicates that there is a moderate negative correlation between poverty and school performance indicators. We discuss the implications for communities and structural poverty and make a plea to reconsider the manner in which single performance indicators are determined. 

In 2013, the Arkansas legislature passed two pieces of legislation requiring the state Department of Education to assign a single indicator of performance to schools in the form of an A through F letter grade. This decision was met with consternation by those who argued that the system represented an unfair oversimplification of the process of schooling. Christian Z. Goering, Associate Professor of English Education at the University of Arkansas wrote,

“Grading schools based on achievement (or growth) will actually be grading them on their socioeconomic status…I challenge all members of the Arkansas legislature to plop down in their cars and drive around to all of the different towns and neighborhoods in their districts, paying close attention to the size of the houses. All they have to do is count the number of garage doors they see on the houses in a particular district and then return to their offices to rank schools accordingly.

  • 0 garage doors/carport – D or F school
  • 1 garage door – D school
  • 2 garage doors – D, C, or B school
  • 3 or more garage doors B or A school.” (Goering, 2015, n.p.)

We don’t have the time or the gas money to take up this challenge, but we were curious to see if there was indeed a relationship between poverty and the letter grades assigned to Arkansas schools. Researchers have found a nearly perfect correlation between parental income and scores on the SAT (0.98) & ACT (0.99) standardized tests (Orlich & Giffords, 2005). Correlations with ethnicity (0.96) were also nearly perfect. These findings do not imply causation, though other researchers have been able to predict district-level state test scores in Language Arts and Mathematics for 60 percent of school districts in New Jersey based only on percentage of single parent households, percentage of residents with at least a Bachelor’s degree, and percentage of economically disadvantaged children (Turnamian & Tienken, 2012). We reasoned that finding a relationship between Arkansas school grades and poverty was a likely proposition.

Read the remainder of the commentary HERE.