Letter Grades For K-12 Districts

"Eighteen Arkansas school districts earned A's or A-minuses, and 14 other systems received failing marks in the latest in a series of Arkansas Policy Foundation studies."

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sept. 28, 2008

Letter grades are a key part of an education system that is accountable and intellectually honest. Parents, students and board members intuitively understand these letter grades: 'A' (excellent), 'B' (above average), 'C' (average), 'D! (below average) and 'F' (failing). Many administrators also support letter grades until the concept is applied to their own districts. Then they resist the idea. Yet progress on transparency means public records exist to accomplish this important task. The Policy Foundation has issued a letter grade to each Arkansas public school district for three consecutive years. Administrators opposed to education reform have finally lost the power to dictate the parameters and terms of this policy debate.

Transparent systems lead to more accountability. The most important components of any accountability initiative are triggers for acclaim or sanctions. Addressing this issue in 1998 we noted:

"School board members and students are certainly aware of the notion of educational accountability. Should board members fail in their duties, they know exactly what will happen. They will not be re-elected. Every time students are tested to measure their achievement they are highly aware of the consequences of not preparing for such assessments—that is, they will fail."

By contrast, we observed some administrators and teachers have no sense of consequence for inferior performance because "everyone gets paid whether the children learn or not." The irony is that some superintendents would still be leading districts if their organization had supported our 1998 transparency and letter grade recommendations at the time. Their districts were excellent or above average in academic and fiscal performance. But metrics for evaluation did not exist until the legislature met in 2003 after the Supreme Court's Lake View ruling. PA 35 of the Second Extraordinary Session of 2003 creates numerical rankings, not letter grades, for each district. The Act's accountability provisions are not fully operational until 2009-2010 "unless an annual performance category level is requested by the school." But Air Force Academy graduate Mark Witkowski used Iowa Test of Basic Skills scores to issue a grade to each Arkansas K-12 district. The Policy Foundation intends to continue this public service for parents and students until a state grading system is operational.

  • Academic ratings and triggers for acclaim or sanctions should be issued for each K-12 public school district using a letter grade system (A, B, C, D, and F).

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