Op-ed: New school grading system a chance to help schools

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By Amelia Courts 
(For The Charleston Gazette)

When Gallop released its annual poll of parent satisfaction with public education last fall, they titled the report “A Nation Confused.” Perhaps much of the confusion stems from what is commonly known as the “Lake Wobegon effect” seen in the survey results themselves. While most of those surveyed give the nation’s public schools a “C” for quality, they invariably gave their own local schools an “A” or “B.”

Lake Wobegon is a fictional town made famous in Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion” because host Garrison Keillor always ends the show with a salute to the town “where all the children are above average.” In fact, the term is widely recognized for the human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others. So how can West Virginians know if we too are overestimating (or underestimating) our local school’s achievement?

During his 2014 State of the State Address, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin charged the West Virginia Board of Education with adopting a policy that would assign an A through F grade to all public schools. Last week the Board adopted it, A Process for Improving Education: Performance Based Accreditation System. The grading system is a straightforward A–F that communicates student achievement progress to communities, parents, students and schools.

As we begin the journey from Lake Wobegon, important questions lie ahead. Some critics perceive the new system as another attempt to tarnish public education. By labeling some schools as Failing, won’t it give the whole system a black eye? Perhaps from a less defensive posture, we could rephrase the question. Don’t we want parents, community and business leaders to know if their school is indeed failing or succeeding? And how can we enlist their support to champion the school’s efforts to get better if we don’t start with a clear understanding of actual school performance?

But are the A–F grade calculations really fair? Don’t some schools face tougher challenges such as poverty and absenteeism? Under the A–F system, every school is expected to demonstrate both achievement and annual improvement. So regardless of its starting point, every school has the opportunity to show growth and receive credit for getting better. To be sure, the question of fairness is a crucial one. It is important for the State Board to ensure that the new system guarantees not only transparency but also meets a high bar in terms of equity and trustworthiness.

And finally, what difference will it really make? How will simply giving a school a letter grade make it better? The answer, of course, is that a letter grade alone, whether an “A” or an “F,” will change nothing. However, perhaps more than any other reform, equipping the public with fair and transparent information about the status of its schools has the potential to change the culture of education in West Virginia.

As a result, parents and community members will have a better understanding of schools’ performance. A-rated schools will become a source of pride among parents, students and the community, while D or F schools will receive additional support that they desperately need.

The new school grading system will shine a bright light on school quality across the state. The results will present us with an important choice. We can take the Lake Wobegon approach and choose to downplay or disregard the results. Or we can embrace the opportunity to improve and be catalysts for change to promote measurable student benefits for all students across the state. I believe West Virginians will rise to the challenge.

Amelia Courts is the executive director of The Education Alliance.