The A-F School Grading Program–“A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad” Idea

I must start today's post with a mention that the title is clearly a take off on Judith Viorst's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  I simply couldn't think of a better way to state my thoughts on the new A-F school grading program that has been promoted by Governor Bob McDonnell, passed by the Virginia General Assembly and now acted upon by the Virginia Board of Education. The title aptly describes what I believe to be a disastrous approach to school improvement…indeed, I question whether or not it has anything at all to do with improvement. It is far more likely that it is intended to promote the same Governor McDonnell's obsession with school choice while minimizing and demoralizing Virginia's teachers and administrators with a grading system that is being used with questionable results in other parts of the country.

The grading system has been around for a long, long time. Some say it started in the late 1700's and its been used for distinguishing excellent academic performance from performance that was merely average and that which was just not acceptable. Everyone is familiar with the concept underlying an A-F system. An “A” means you've met all of the criteria for excellent results. An “F” means you either didn't try, didn't care, or just couldn't do the work that was expected of you.

Individuals have been performing for grades for centuries, and while an “A” is a grade representative of  excellence, every teacher on the planet knows that an “A” in one setting may or may not be an “A” in another. And don't get me started on the number of times I have heard of administrators making teachers change a “B” to an “A” or a “C” to a “B” in order to appease an irate parent or to  make sure the kid makes the cut for the sports team he/she is needed on by an ambitious coach with dreams of making the championship this year.

The grading system has never been perfect, and so it is particularly ironic that Virginia has recently adopted a fatally flawed grading system for its schools because it was a signature piece of Bob McDonnell's education agenda. As Mr. McDonnell sails off into whatever the future holds for him, he is leaving a legacy that will surely need to be undone at some point in the future, but the question is how much damage might be done in the interim.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has recently written an article entitled, “What Virginian's Don't Know About New A-F School Grading System.” Last week the Board of Education adopted the criteria that will be used starting in 2014 in spite of the fact that the model upon which McDonnell based his proposal is failing miserably in the states where it has already been adopted and is being implemented.

The Roanoke Times issued a commentary today with the title, “Perspective:  ‘D' is for a Dumb Idea.” The article concludes as follows:  “The new letter-grade formula is contributing to a burgeoning revolt among school systems seeking relief from the annual barrage of Standards of Learning tests. What's getting lost in the hubbub is a serious discussion about what it will take to ensure a happy, healthy, prosperous future for Virginia and its children.”

Virginia needs to take a serious look at what its schools and its students and teachers need in order to be successful, but this letter grade nonsense isn't the answer. In fact, this whole scheme is designed quite deliberately by corporate conservatives to make public schools look bad so that charter schools and for profit virtual schools will look more attractive to the parents who don't want to send their kids to a school that has been slapped with a big old “F” for not being able to compete in the increasingly unlevel playing field that has been emerging in Virginia's landscape for education for over a decade now. Virginia was already suffering from lack of adequate funding BEFORE the great recession of 2008, and while Wall Street is doing just fine now after having created the recessionary problems, those who are in the public sector and particularly those who are dedicated to teaching Virginia's children continue to struggle with waning resources, stagnant salaries and precious little support from the public at large.

Mr. McDonnell hailed Florida and Louisiana as the examples of how well the A-F grading system worked in those states, ignoring the fact that in Florida, at least, according to the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, the current accountability plan is “no longer credible in the eyes of the public–from the adoption of new standards to the nationally recognized awarding of school grades. Unless public confidence is restored, the entire system is at risk.” Does that sound like a plan that Virginia should be adopting as its own? I don't think so.

I don't doubt that the Board of Education members tried to make “lemonade out of lemons” as one school board member noted at a meeting of the Virginia Education Association this past weekend, but that doesn't make this a worthwhile plan, and I am personally disappointed that there wasn't one single Board member who did their homework or listened to the objections of the VEA and other professional stakeholders who know what a potential train wreck this plan is. My best hope is that the new Governor of Virginia will take a thoughtful look at the plan and offer the General Assembly something better with which to replace this flawed idea. Time will tell. For now, I am just sad that we have succumbed to yet another bad idea put forward specifically to give public schools in Virginia a black eye and to further erode the morale of our hard working teachers and administrators.