- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2013

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is pushing for a letter-grading system to evaluate the quality of the state’s schools, echoing an approach that has been enacted by Republican leaders in other states.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, will propose a system in this year’s General Assembly that is similar to Florida and Louisiana, where proponents say report-card-style grades raise accountability and are more easily relatable for parents and school officials.

Critics say letter grades might not capture the socioeconomic issues facing educators and could stigmatize low-performing schools, but Virginia administration officials argue that the system would replace what is now a “convoluted mess” of grading rubrics.

“This gives schools something to strive for,” said Javaid Siddiqi, Virginia’s deputy secretary of education. “Grading A to F basically looks to take those indicators and provide a formula that will combine all of those things.”

Virginia officials say letter grades would bring simplicity to a system that currently evaluates schools by the percentage of students who pass core classes and the school’s level of success in completing annual measurable objectives that call for year-to-year improvement in student performance.

Schools gain accreditation by maintaining acceptable pass rates but can lose it if they fail to satisfy the goals for four consecutive years, which then requires them to come up with a corrective action plan.

Other states with traditionally Republican leadership have turned to letter grades, and such systems have been recently passed in Ohio and Oklahoma, both of which have Republican governors and GOP-controlled legislatures.

Ohio lawmakers passed a bill last month to implement letter grades as a replacement for its five-tier scale ranging from excellent to academic emergency, and Oklahoma debuted its system this year despite criticism from superintendents who said the system is unfair to schools in low-income neighborhoods that have economic obstacles in their way.

“In Tulsa, we have achievement problems, and we know what they are,” Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard told The Oklahoman. “And we’ve worked around the clock. We support accountability. We support measurement of performance. It just needs to be done in a fair, concise, easily understandable manner.”

Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said unions and school personnel traditionally have considered letter grades too blunt and simplistic, suggesting they were designed to single out underperforming schools.

He also said Republicans have pushed letter grades along with other reforms such as increased teacher accountability and expansion of charter schools.

The Virginia Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers, declined to comment on Mr. McDonnell’s proposal, saying it would need to see the legislation first. The National Education Association also declined to comment but said it likely would take the VEA’s lead on the issue.

Mr. Whitehurst said that while letter grades can work, one problem he has seen is that the formulas used to calculate the grades can be just as confusing as other systems.

He said Virginia and other states should make sure that school administrators are well aware of the factors involved in evaluating and what it takes to raise their grades.

“The desirable part of the system is that it is simple,” he said. “But if they don’t know why they’re getting a D or C grade, they don’t know what they’ve got to do to get better.”

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