The state Board of Education
Thursday adopted a formula to assign letter grades to Arkansas schools
based on performance on standardized tests and, in high schools, on graduation rates. Anybody who thinks a letter grade will do much to improve students' performance hasn't been paying attention.
For one thing, the change is mostly for show. It \will replace an existing 1-5 numerical rating system with a letter grade. The Board had no choice but to follow a new state law mandating it. Board member Alice Mahony
nonetheless cast a single, understandable protest vote in opposition. She noted the ongoing change in the state's standards and tests and also criticism elsewhere that letter grades don't give a complete picture of school operations.
Of course they don't. It's simplistic Arkansas lawmaking by symbolism. Though the formula allegedly provides some means to mitigate the proven burden of poverty in school success, I"m skeptical. Cynthia Howell's thorough report in the Democrat-Gazette
(subscription required) delves into these details, but it seems to me from a cursory reading that the few points provided in the grading formula for schools that defy the reliable predictor of poverty in poor results don't offset the benefits in the formula for the number of high-scoring students.
The Little Rock School District
is an example. It has something like a 70 percent poverty rate (measured by family eligibility for subsidized lunches). At the high school level, the tiny enrollment of non-minorities is disproportionately represented by higher-income students seeking the demanding enriched curriculum at a couple of high schools — Central and Parkview. The gap that exists everywhere based on race and economic status is even more dramatic in Little Rock, thanks primarily to the gap in economic status. Central High, for example, dances around the acceptable performance level every years despite its annual place atop the state's National Merit list. Its cadre of supremely high-performing students aren't enough to offset the statistically typical performance of poor students.
Some points will be given in the grading formula for improvement, yes. But I think the vast percentage of failing schools can be readily predicted today based on racial and economic indicators. There will be outliers and, as ever, they'll be worth study. But an F school isn't likely to improve much on the strength of this so-called accountability measure. Too often, you'll find in those schools the difficult home life that reliably predicts poor performance. (And you'll often find school districts with facilities and finances to match.)
That new charter middle school in Chenal Valley with its tiny percentage of poor and black students will grade higher than the nearby Little Rock middle school made up almost entirely of poor black students. No, I'm not saying 1) that those kids can't learn or 2) that we should give up. But I am saying that letter grades will often be as much a grade of the raw material received by education factories as of the factories themselves.