The Norman Transcript

October 6, 2012

A-F grading system: questions and answers

Collaboration between Caitlin Schudalla, Shelly Hickman and Dr. Joe Siano
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN —

What are the Oklahoma A-F grades?

The A-F grades are the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s (SDE) new method for reporting school performance to the public. These letter grades replace the previous Academic Performance Index scores calculated by the SDE per the No Child Left Behind law.

Why did the SDE feel it necessary to change the evaluation system?

State Superintendent Janet Barresi has said this change is intended to give parents a better understanding of their schools’ performance. The Academic Performance Index scores previously calculated by the SDE were scaled scores ranging 0-1500, similar in nature to the ACT and SAT exam scores.

How are the A-F grades computed?

The SDE computes the grades through a formula it devised, with 94 percent of the data used coming from the SDE and 6 percent from data supplied by school districts. The formula is extremely complex, but the SDE has published a 10-page manual for the public, as well as a 28-page Report Card Guide with the 48 different calculation tables, all available in pdf format on the SDE website at http://ok.gov/sde/node/3507.

Does NPS approve the new A-F system?

NPS is a strong supporter of school accountability and public transparency. We support the spirit of the Legislature’s intent in passing the A-F law but see three serious flaws in the manner in which the SDE is calculating grades:

The SDE devised a non-traditional A-F scale unfamiliar to parents. For example, under the scale devised by the SDE, a 3.75, or a percent grade of 93.75, is needed for an A. Why use simple A-F grades if not in the manner familiar to parents?

The SDE does not treat all students’ performance equally in its formula, but rather heavily weights lower performing students at each school and minimizes the impact of the academic progress of students achieving at “Proficient” and “Advanced” levels.

The SDE’s formula does not accurately measure academic growth in students.

What is the effect of this formula for a high-performing district?

Perhaps to best demonstrate the effect is to give an example based on the preliminary grades the SDE has computed of NPS schools: One NPS school deemed High Performing by federal criteria and which has over 90 percent or more of its 300 students tested at Proficient and Advanced on state exams will likely receive a B because of the formula’s heavy weighting of 24 students’ scores who present unique learning challenges and because of its flawed computation for measuring those 24 students’ academic improvement.

Shouldn’t schools be accountable for students with challenges?

Absolutely and they have been, especially since the No Child Left Behind law. However, because the SDE’s new formula doesn’t accurately reflect the academic gains being made by students, the High Performing NPS school referred to in our example will likely receive a B even though its lower performing students are improving academically.

How do the grades not accurately reflect students’ academic growth?

The SDE’s formula for calculating “state average growth” is what a school must meet to earn credit in the formula for its lower performing students making academic gains. However, this average isn’t a true average because the SDE chose to compute it by only using the test scores of students across the state who posted gains from one year’s subject test to the next year, e.g. they did better on the 4th grade reading test than they did on the 3rd grade reading test. Why is this a problem? Most students will perform at grade level and will do about the same on the state subject tests from one grade to the next grade because the tests are designed to measure grade level mastery of the content. However, in computing average academic growth for its formula, the SDE excluded the scores of students who performed the same from one year’s subject tests to the next, as well as excluded the test scores of students who didn’t perform as well on the next year’s subject tests. This inflated the ‘average’ and resulted in most schools across the state receiving lower grades even if their students were improving academically.

Do other states have similar systems and is there research supporting such systems?

There are a handful of states that use letter grades to grade their schools. NPS is not aware of any research that indicates students who live in such states perform better academically.

How will A-F affect the way we look at schools’ progress and has the state modified the AYP standard to accommodate the new system?

In adopting the A-F system, Oklahoma abandoned the Academic Performance Index and its method for calculating schools’ Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). The SDE has said that “annual measurable objectives” will now determine whether schools make AYP but it has not yet shared those objectives with schools and the public.

Any surprises or schools the district feels may be especially misrepresented?

It was not surprising in that the district was able to estimate grades based on review of student achievement data and the SDE’s new formula. Generally, the higher percentage of English Language Learners and students being served by special education that an NPS school has, the lower the preliminary grade given to that school by the SDE. Again, this is not because NPS’ English Language Learners and students being served by special education are not making gains at NPS. It is, again, because the SDE’s calculation for academic gains is not accurate.

Does NPS and its principals believe A-F will provide an incentive for higher performance and more parental involvement?

NPS principals and teachers are already motivated by a mission of high expectations for all and are dedicated to serving the unique needs of NPS students so that they achieve their full academic potential. NPS is fortunate to already have robust parental involvement and community support of its schools. The SDE’s A-F grades can be an additional measure for NPS to compare performance from one year to the next, but we hope the SDE modifies its formula so the grades more accurately reflect school performance and the quality of instruction in future years. Certainly, parents can consider A-F grades when they are released tomorrow. Yet, we also encourage them to continue to review other measures of NPS schools’ performance, such as ACT and SAT scores, state exam scores, district benchmark testing, graduation and dropout rates, and their children’s own grade cards in forming their opinions on the quality of their local schools and the instruction being provided there.

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