Today the School Performance Reports for 2014 were released by the Arkansas Department of Education. For the first time schools received A-F letter grades just like their students. How did our schools do?
As it turns out, most Arkansas schools are doing pretty well! The chart below shows the number of schools receiving each letter grade.
Fifteen percent of Arkansas schools received an “A”, but the majority of Arkansas schools (66%) received a grade of “B” or “C”. Only fifteen percent of schools received a “D” and four percent received an “F.”
Similarly to the letter grades that a student receives from their teacher, school letter grades are an overview of several different performance measures. Letter grades for schools represent four main indicators of school performance, and each component is explained in today’s policy brief.
Unlike ESEA accountability measures, letter grades represent a broader spectrum of information and are more equitable to schools. The information is also a lot more helpful to parents. Compare the two pie charts: on the left is letter grades and on the right is ESEA labels. When 94% of Arkansas schools are identified as Needs Improvement, the label becomes relatively meaningless.
Although more meaningful than Needs Improvement, interpreting the letter grades can still be challenging to stakeholders. What kind of grade should parents expect? We all know that an “A” is better than an “F”, but what about all the grades in between?
We at the OEP find it helpful to think about school grades just like we think about student grades. We (try to) always interpret our own kids’ grades by asking three questions:
- Is the grade better or worse than we expected given what we know about our kid and the context of the grade? Maybe science just isn’t his strength- but he is doing great in reading.
- If it is worse- what exactly is the problem area? Not turning in homework is different than not understanding the material on a test.
- What can we do to help?
Got an “A”: The High Achievers!
The highest performing schools in the state received an “A” grade, even though they may have missed some points for achivement gap or not meeting all performance tagets. This can be likened to a high performing student who may get “A”s even without completing all homework or being awarded extra credit. “A” schools are doing very well but should stay motivated, so their students continue to improve.
“B”s and “C”s: On Track but could improve…
Schools receiving “B”s or “C”s should carefully examine their data to identify specific areas for improvement. Each component of the letter grade system can significantly raise or lower the overall score for schools where students are performing well but are not in the “A” range. Just like “B” and “C” students, every score is important to maintain passing grades for these schools. Meeting performance targets is very important and the achievement gap/ graduation gap adjustments can have a substantial impact on the overall grade. Schools receiving “B”s or “C”s should carefully examine their data to identify specific areas for improvement. Communicating successes and growth areas will help the community support the continued improvement for the school.
“D”s and “F”s: Time for A Parent/Teacher Conference
Schools receiving “D”s or “F”s are facing many challenges in terms of student performance. These schools are in the bottom 20% of schools in the state. Schools should take immediate measures to ensure improvement. Collaboration with supporters based on identified areas of need and continuous evaluation of progress are critical interventions.
While we applaud the intent of Act 696 to make school performance easier for parents to understand, the OEP has several recommendations to improve its use.
Make it easier to access letter grades and the data. The letter grades are buried deep in the Arkansas School Performance Report Cards, which are anything but user-friendly. We appreciate the parent handout and video, but without easy access to letter grades and the detailed values used in their determination, parents will continue to be left wondering what the label means about their school’s performance.
Move toward national comparisons. Letter grades are relevant only within the state and are not comparable across the county. Arkansas needs to think more broadly about measuring student achievement, and Common Core State Standards and PARCC assessments are a step in the right direction.
Address the achievement gap. The magnitude of the average achievement gap between at-risk and not at-risk students is staggering at nearly 20 percentage points. We hope these previously unreported data serve as a wake up call to school leaders and stakeholders. Arkansas needs to focus on the success of all Arkansas students.
Most importantly, let’s not get too caught up in the grades. Just like we do as parents we need to instead focus on the individual student in the classrooms. Our goal is not for everyone to get an “A”, but for every student to experience the most effective learning environment every day.