Ryan Miskell is an OK Policy Research Fellow and a research associate with the Oklahoma Center for Education Policy. He is working on his Ph.D. in Education Leadership and Policy Studies from The University of Oklahoma. He is a contributing author to reports analyzing the technical merits and empirical strength of Oklahoma’s A-F Report Card.

Photo by flickr user 'amboo who?' used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by flickr user ‘amboo who?’ used under a Creative Commons license.

In an effort to meet the federal waiver requirements for the No Child Left Behind law and to provide school accountability, Oklahoma has instituted an A-F grading system for schools.  These grades are intended to be a clear and simple way for Oklahomans to understand how schools are performing.  However, the system is anything but clear and simple, and its major flaws distort our understanding of school performance.

The release of this year’s school grades has been marred by missteps, with grades changing 5 or 6 times due to miscalculations by the State Department of Education.  Lawmakers were alerted to fundamental flaws with the A-F system in a report released last year by researchers from The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, but they ignored the report’s recommendations when they made changes to the A-F legislation.

The OU/OSU research team has now issued a new report that analyzes actual state-assigned letter grades and individual student test scores, examining how school grades operate in practice.  The report tests the essential premise of a letter-grade system: Schools with high letter grades should have a pattern of high academic achievement for all students and schools with low letter grades should have a pattern of low academic achievement for all students.  The researchers found this was not the case. Letter grades did not match student achievement at many schools, and legislative changes to the system seem to have exacerbated these flaws. 

Three key findings emerged in the report: 1) As few as three test questions out of fifty separate A from F schools; 2) In some cases, scores from D and F schools outperform B and C schools (in fact, not one of the top seven performing math schools was an A school); and 3) poor and minority students in D and F schools outperformed similar students in A and B schools.

This last finding challenges the legitimacy of Oklahoma’s federal waiver to the No Child Left Behind law.   The waiver requires states to ensure that all students, including subgroups of at-risk students and minorities, make academic progress. If Oklahoma does not change the practice of combining subgroups into a group labeled the bottom quartile, it is possible the state will not receive a waiver when it is up for renewal.

The OU/OSU study found that poor and minority students in D and F schools outperform their peers in A and B schools.  By combining subgroups in the bottom quartile, Oklahoma’s A-F system allows A and B schools to rely on higher achieving (often more affluent) students to boost their grades, while masking low-income and minority student performance. This creates disincentives for “high performing” schools to change their practices and exert effort and resources to meet the needs of low-income and minority students.  However, since D and F schools include higher percentages of poor and minority students, they appear to meet these students’ needs more effectively.  This legislated system incorrectly classifies schools as high performing when they do little or nothing to close the achievement gap.   

The timing of school grade releases is not helpful for school improvement efforts.  The grades are based on test results from April and May.  They are just now (October) being released to principals and will be publicly released in November.  Releasing these grades in the middle of the following school year does not help parents or educators take an active role in improving a school.  The summer has come and gone.  School leaders have already purchased curriculum materials and made staffing decisions. Teachers have prepared unit plans and made education plans with parents and counselors.  A school accountability policy intended to help schools improve and close the achievement gap would reasonably provide accurate and timely information.  This system fails to achieve this standard.

Instead of providing schools with information they can use to improve and understand their performance, the A-F grades seem nothing more than a high-stakes accountability system intended to punish some schools and reward others.  Worst of all, high-stakes consequences are determined through a flawed and inconsistent system. They are no help to anyone who wants to improve schools for Oklahoma children.

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