Bennett Resignation Raises Questions on A to F School Grading Systems

When the Associated Press published a story alleging that former Superintendent of Public Instruction of Indiana Tony Bennett changed the A-F grading system in order to boost the grade of a school operated by a political donor, it gave rise to wide ranging criticism over the use of such simplistic measures to describe the performance of public and charter schools. In the wake of the AP revelations, Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who defeated Bennett for the top Indiana job last November, has announced that the state will give the system, which is still in use in the state, a second look.

It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Florida, where Bennett landed after leaving his Indiana post and which saw his resignation last week, will follow suit.

However, as Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains, the issues raised by the Christel House incident aren’t just limited to the grading system itself. Bennett argued that the formula was changed because when it assigned an exemplary school like Christel House only a C, its accuracy was put into question. It’s entirely possible that Bennett would not have suffered nearly as much fallout if he had been more transparent about the changes at the time.

Maine provides a particularly instructive counterexample:

Maine, which unveiled school report cards for the first time in the spring, changed the grades for three of 600 schools after errors were caught in the calculations and made those changes public, said Samantha Warren, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

“If there are legitimate things that got screwed up within the accountability system, you want to make sure everyone understands what you did and why,” said Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States. “You do not want to do that in a backroom. “

Still, public or not, A-to-F grading systems are problematic, according to RiShawn Biddle, a blogger and policy analyst from DropoutNation.com. Biddle calls them “seductively simple,” but says that they are not truly informative. Biddle believes that there are better, though more complex, indicators of school quality, including improvement over time in grades, graduation rates, drop-out rates and course offerings.

In addition to Florida and Indiana, other states that are grading schools on an A-to-F scale include Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah, along with New York City. Virginia plans to implement an A-to-F system in 2015, and Ohio intends to do so that year as well.

Many of those states made the grading system central to the accountability plan they submitted to the Obama administration to receive a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law. Several states, including Indiana, use the grades to make decisions about funding, closure and state takeovers.