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Superintendents critique new grading system

Friday, February 8, 2013


Local school superintendents have concerns about legislation adopted by the General Assembly this week that will assign A-F letter grades to public schools based on how well they teach students.

“I’m not in favor of it at all,” said Martinsville schools Superintendent Pam Heath. She said the grading system will be redundant to criteria already in place that hold schools accountable for students’ success at learning.

“It’s a layer (of bureaucracy) that seems totally unnecessary,” Heath said, adding that it seems more like “another opportunity to knock schools down” in assessments of how they teach.

She said Virginia’s schools rank fourth in the nation in terms of how well they educate children. To Heath’s understanding, Other states that have imposed similar grades on schools do not rate that high, she said.

Among those states are Florida, which ranks 11th, and Louisiana, which ranks 23rd, according to newspaper reports.

Virginia’s current school rating system is “very easy to understand,” Henry County Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton said, referring to accreditation.

Under the accreditation system, Cotton said, schools can be classified as fully accredited, not accredited or accredited with warning.

Roger Morris, superintendent of the Patrick County Schools, reasoned that if students are not assigned an overall letter grade reflecting their performance, then schools shouldn’t be assigned one, either.

The letter grades are to be imposed in the next school year, based on how well schools taught students in the current year, reports show.

Failing schools could be removed from their local districts and put into a state-run division designed to help them improve.

State officials have said they think few schools would receive an F. Morris wondered what will happen if more schools fail than they anticipate.

Apparently, criteria for each grade has not yet been set, based on information provided by the Virginia School Boards Association. It and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents have voiced their opposition to the legislation.

Heath said she has seen only drafts of the criteria, but based on what she has seen, she thinks it would be hard for a school to get an A.

The grades would be based on numerous factors, including whether schools are accredited, have warnings imposed on them and how many of their students score at advanced proficiency levels, she said.

Cotton said a lot of information about schools is available on the Virginia Department of Education’s website, including SOL (Standards of Learning) scores, graduation rates and information about student behavior.

Factors such as pupil graduation and attendance rates should be taken into account when judging schools’ performances — perhaps more than how well the schools comply with SOL requirements, Morris said.

Letter grades would not provide parents or the public with much information on schools, Cotton said. For instance, they would not specifically show where a school does well or needs improvement, he said.

Instead of putting a new “label” on schools, Cotton said, the state should generally try to improve its assessment program.

He mentioned, for example, that under current assessments, it is hard to monitor student progress from one year to another, he said.

Also, multiple-choice tests are limited in what they can measure, which results in a need for assessments that are more open-ended, he said.

Morris said the state should have waited at least a year before it considered implementing letter grades, getting input from teachers and superintendents in the meantime.

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill, sponsored the original legislation to set up a letter grade system. Heath said Stanley had told city school officials he sent a letter seeking input from area school systems but as far as she knows, the city schools never received the letter.

On his website, Gov. Bob McDonnell said he thinks letter grades provide “a simpler way” to understand school performance than current accreditation measures.

“It’s time for Virginia to adapt this common sense A-F school grading system that has been successfully implemented in other states and will help us continue to make real improvements” in the quality of schools statewide, he stated.


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