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Making the grade

State education officials plan to employ a letter-grade system for assessing schools.

Clifton Adcock February 15th, 2012

A strategy to give Oklahoma public schools and school districts letter grades hopefully will be “transformative” to the state’s education system, state Superintendent Janet Barresi said.

Part of several education reform measures passed last year by the Legislature, the plan is scheduled to be posted Monday to the education department’s website. A 30-day public comment period begins at that time and the state Board of Education votes on the measure during its March 29 meeting. If it passes, the policy change then must receive legislative and gubernatorial approval.

Barresi (pictured) said the rule, barring any legislative changes, should be in effect by the beginning of next school year, and the department will begin training districts on it before then.

E for evaluation
The letter-grade system would replace the current Academic Performance Index, which operates on a numeric scale going up to 1,500. The plan was part of the state’s application for a No Child Left Behind waiver, which the Obama administration granted on Feb. 9.

“In other states that have [letter-grade systems], it has brought a great deal of community participation and school improvement,” Barresi said. “Some parents really don’t have a choice; they can’t hire a moving van and they can’t write a check for a private school. It empowers parents and community people to have the information they need to become part of the answer for that school. It is very clear that schools that have a high level of parent and community involvement do better.”

This is not just about test scores.
The plan not only will make a school’s grade easier to understand, she said, but also change how that grade is given by including academic growth in its calculations.

For instance, if a class of sixth-graders is reading on a third-grade level, and by the end of the year that class has improved to reading on a fifth-grade level, points will be awarded for the amount of growth, rather than deducted for the class not reaching a sixth-grade reading level.

“This is not just about test scores, though that is a component of it,” Barresi said. “We’re moving away from those students achieving just one test score as we did in No Child Left Behind and we’re focused on growth.”

Each metric that goes into the letter-grade designation will be broken down into grades that can be viewed by the public, Barresi said, and include such factors as graduation rates, test scores, dropout rates and the number of students in advanced placement classes (for high schools) and third-grade remediation levels.

A for accountability
Not all are convinced that the system will be better than the current one.

“We don’t think an A through F grading system is an accurate and fair school accountability system,” said Alicia Priest, vice president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “For our students to thrive, we need to be held accountable — all of us: teachers, students and elected officials.”

Priest said cuts to professional development and training for teachers might deprive them of the tools to help improve the classrooms, and that the current system shows a bigger picture of what is going on in the school and community at large, while the proposed alternative likely will be used to label and punish schools.

“I just want to make sure that our schools and students are thriving, and we are for accountability, when it’s accountability across the board and we have the structures in place to support teachers to make a difference in the lives of kids,” Priest said.

Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Karl Springer said he supports the idea of including the academic growth of the student in the grading.

“In general, these kinds of reform measures are good, and the ideas that Superintendent Barresi has been bringing forward are positive,” he said. “I think we’re all about trying to improve our schools and to the extent that that kind of system improves our schools in Oklahoma City and across the state, then I’m all for it.”

Photo by Mark Hancock

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