Arkansas Schools to Receive Letter Grades

Yesterday, the Arkansas State Board of Education voted to adopt a letter-grade school rating system for every public school in the state. Beginning this school year, the Arkansas Department of Education will rate each school with a letter grade, A through F, as part of the school’s annual performance reports that are compiled and distributed by the Department and each school district. The letter grade will be assigned based on what appears to be a complex formula developed, at least in part, by Department staff that takes into account a school’s weighted performance for student test scores, its meeting of annual targets for school improvement, its graduation rates, and certain adjustments to account for the school’s achievement gaps.

The Board has received some criticism for approving the rating system, which you can read for yourself here, but the Board didn’t have much choice. In 2013, the General Assembly passed Act 696 of 2013, which mandates a school rating system based on letter grades. The Board has no choice but to follow the law, and it really makes no difference, at least to some degree, what formula is used to calculate these letter grades, as it’s the letter grades themselves that present a problem. Even with the Department’s best efforts to account for student poverty in this formula (and I trust that the Department did make its best effort), there’s simply no way around the fact that schools with a high concentration of poor students will receive, at least on average, a lower grade that schools with a lower concentration of poor students. Poverty is the biggest indicator of student achievement, and a single letter grade can’t possibly tell the whole story of how a school is performing, especially in schools with the most socioeconomic disadvantaged students.

I’m all for transparency and the public’s right to have an abundance of information on the performance and operations of their local schools, but besides being a poor indicator and oversimplified, letter grades could have significant negative consequences for public schools. Who wants their child to attend a “D” or “F” school? Nobody, but only those with the means to send their children elsewhere will be able to do anything about it, leaving the poorer students behind and possibly exacerbating the problem. School choice is available under certain circumstances to everyone, but the reality in many rural, poor parts of the state is that many parents just don’t have a choice at all due to long work hours, transportation issues, and distance between schools. Who wants to teach in a “D” or “F” school? Again, the answer is nobody, and this could hurt teacher recruitment. Who wants to vote to pass a millage increase for a school district with “D” and “F” schools? Once again, probably nobody. Overall community support for the local schools that need it most could plummet.

Assigning schools letter grades, in my opinion, will do little more than further highlight the differences in performance between schools with wealthier students and schools with poorer students. Does this mean we should just give up on poor students? Or course not. Can poorer students learn as much as their wealthier counterparts? Absolutely. Will the achievement gap ever be closed? I would hope that we move closer to reaching that goal everyday. Will grading schools help us achieve this goal? Probably not.

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