A-F School Rating Systems

Click image to download printable PDF

To express opposition to A-F school rating systems, and offer recommendations for state-designed accountability systems encouraging continuous improvement and supporting low-performing schools.

Issue

Florida was the first state to adopt an A-F school rating system as part of its A+ Education Plan in 1999. Since that time, 15 other states have implemented a similar model when redesigning their school accountability systems to receive the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility waivers from the U.S. Department of Education. It should be noted, however, that Virginia passed a law to repeal its A-F school rating system in 2015, and legislation has been introduced in other states to make major modifications to their systems as well. The most recent version of ESEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, provides flexibility for states to design their own school accountability systems without federal coercion, so we expect this to be a hot topic in the coming years.

States have adopted the A-F school rating system because it "gives parents, students, educators and communities clear and concise information on how well their schools are doing" (West Virginia Department of Education). Proponents also argue that letter grades are transparent and objective, and that they force improvements in low-performing schools. They also claim that closing schools that receive low grades or allowing parents to remove their children from those schools ultimately ensures that only high-performing schools survive.

Even with the proliferation of A-F school rating systems in states, there has been very little research conducted to determine the reliability or validity of using them for state accountability. The only known reports were conducted in 2013 by The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University researchers who were highly critical of Oklahoma's A-F school rating system. They argued that basing a letter grade almost exclusively on test scores does not account for numerous factors that contribute to school performance, including many outside of educators' control. They also noted that A-F grades were not productive for school improvement because they did not explain the how or why of low performance, and the system did nothing to build the capacity of schools or educators.

Researchers at The Education Trust also found that a single letter grade for schools does not tell the whole story, and could mask the low performance of certain student subgroups. It could also hide high performance and growth among students, and other indicators that a school is headed in the right direction. Some opponents have also expressed concern that assigning a low grade to a school or district could make it more difficult to attract and retain highly effective teachers and school leaders who could have a positive impact on the students and the community. And although policymakers hoped that these systems would empower parents to make decisions about their children's education, low grades "are more likely to alienate parents from democratic participation in the education of their children than to promote healthy school involvement" (Howe; Murray, January 2015).