Governor Inslee supports letter grades for schools

February 19, 2013

There’s a lot of buzz about Senator Litzow’s bill, SB 5328, to implement a state ranking system to give A through F letter grades to public schools, so families and taxpayers can know where their local school stands.

This is a bipartisan idea. On Sunday, Tacoma's News Tribune noted that Jay Inslee has called for giving letter grades to schools and then using the rankings to inform parents. In an interview with the education reform group Stand for Children (at 10:10 below) Inslee said:

“We have a quarter of our children who are sort of forgotten children, and that is going to be unacceptable when I’m governor. That’s one of the reasons I’m proposing (that) every school will have a letter grade that will be given and disseminated then to the parents in the district so that we hold ourselves accountable.”

Inslee repeated his support in an interview with The Seattle Times. He said he wants to, as the Times put it, “establish a system in which every school in the state receives a letter grade that’s accessible to parents.”

On our website we provide the state's latest Achievement Index and show what a letter-grade system would look like. You can look up your school here.

Parents love this idea. I was a guest Wednesday on the Mike Fitzsimmons Show, KXLY radio, and during my 90-minute segment we took dozens of calls from parents asking for their local school’s grade. The station’s phone board was jammed – the host couldn’t fit everyone in.

The main opponents to giving letter grades to schools once a year are the adults who would be graded, even though they work in a system that every day issues letter grades to children.

Public education only works when we have engaged parents in the community ready to do whatever it takes to make their school a success. Parents can only be engaged when they are informed; when they have a clear understanding of where their school stands in relation to other schools locally and across the state. It’s true that receiving a low ranking will make some adults employed in education uncomfortable, but it is worth it if it helps children by making our public schools stronger.


Achievement Index

The Washington Achievement Index is a weighted interpretation of data. No interpretation is perfect, but it is a good attempt at looking at different factors. The achievement versus peers is a little cryptic. I think they need to specify who the peer schools are, and why they are grouped as peers.

By the time it is graded by state, I think there are too many asimilar factors to give me confidence that I'm seeing intelligent conclusions.

The state breaks up sports into AA, AAA, etc. Maybe that's not a good analogy, but I'd like to see grading by specific groups.

-Make five or ten peer groups, and then apply the bell curve to each group and apply the grades.

-Apply the bell curve by county, and apply the grades. This would tell me the most. I know the schools where I live and so do the people around me.

-Break schools into five groups based on the average income of the parents at the school. Apply the bell curve to each group and apply the grades.

And sure, I see a little data collection error, round off error, compounding error in precision, but that kind of comes with the territory, it is a subjective guide, not an attempt to land a vehicle on Mars.

What is being graded, the school or the students?

What is a good school or a bad school?

So far, every time I have heard anyone talk about a "failing school" they relied on student test scores to label the school that way. It seems to me that isn't a measure of the school but a measure of the students. Using a couple of schools in Seattle as examples, is Aki Kurose, a middle school in the low-income community of the Rainier Valley, an under-performing school or is it a school with a lot of under-performing students? At the same time I have to wonder if Eckstein, a middle school in the affluent northeast of the city, is a high performing school or if it is just a school full of high performing students.

Here's a little thought experiment for us:
To what extent is Eckstein's administration or staff responsible for the success of the students there? To what extent are the student outcomes attributable to their home live and the work done at their elementary schools for six years before the students arrived at Eckstein? In a similar way, to what extent is the administration and staff at Aki Kurose responsible for the low pass rates of the students there? To what extent are the student outcomes attributable to their home live and the work done at their elementary schools for six years before the students arrived at Aki Kurose?

Does anyone - anyone - believe that if the schools swapped students - if the Aki Kurose students went to school at Eckstein and the Eckstein students went to school at Aki Kurose - that the student test scores would swap as well, and the former Eckstein students, now at Aki Kurose, would begin to fail and the Aki Kurose students, once enrolled at Eckstein would suddenly begin to get high test scores? Really? Does anyone believe that?

So what are we judging? Are we really judging the school or are we judging the students?

How would this be helpful?

Let's say that this bill is passed and signed into law. Then what?

All of the schools get a letter grade. I doubt anyone will be surprised by these grades. Then what?

The proponents say that the letter grade is "so families and taxpayers can know where their local school stands." Mr. Inslee says that a letter grade will "inform parents". But families and taxpayers can already know where their local school stands. The OSPI already produces a report card for every school. This isn't new information.

Even if it were new information. What will anyone do with it? What action will they take - or not take - as a result of having this information?

Mr. Inslee says that having these letter grades will hold someone accountable. Really? How? People keep talking about "accountability" but I don't think they really know what that word means.

Near as I can tell, these letter grades would serve no constructive purpose. Yes, they will shame some school communities and be a source of pride for others, but will there be any actual consequence? Help us to discover what that could be.