COMMENTARY: Fighting over the grading of OK schools, from A to F

OKLAHOMA CITY – Public release of letter grades for every Oklahoma public school — scheduled for this week — has been delayed at least two weeks.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, announcing the slowdown, said, “In an abundance of caution, the State Department of Education is going to take additional time to guarantee absolute, 100-percent accuracy of the grades.

“Despite two periods in which school districts were to certify assessment results as well as the current review underway, our assessment office is still receiving a number of corrections and changes. To say this has been frustrating is putting it mildly. The A-F Report Cards are too critical a tool for parents and communities to accept anything less than quality.”

Demands to kill Oklahoma’s A-F system of school grading while it is still in its infancy are intriguing, in that they emanate from quarters that have for decades accepted flat student achievement and poor results in a bureaucracy-heavy program that is failing hundreds of thousands of students annually.

The state Education Department’s A-F evaluations are flawed – as Barresi readily concedes — but can and should be fixed. The reaction of much of the public education mainstream to A-F grading of schools has been overwrought, particularly so in that it comes from folks who defend the failed status quo so passionately and consistently. And, to be clear, these are also the same elements and institutions aligned to strangle Oklahoma’s school choice programs in the crib.

Leaders of the Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC) – organized in central Oklahoma, Tulsa, Sand Springs and Durant – said Wednesday their members “have been actively involved in the A-F dialog, and we have no confidence the delay will result in grades which accurately reflect school performance.  We believe it is highly inappropriate to suggest the current system should be used as a tool for parents and communities to determine school effectiveness.”

The groups point, among other things, to last spring’s online testing failures and changes in scoring for required high school graduation exams. 

On Monday, the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA) and the United Suburban School Association (USSA) used similar “no confidence” language. Local school superintendents, including Tulsa’s Keith Ballard, have taken full advantage of the A-F start-up challenges to decry “dysfunction and ineptitude” in the A-F reports. 

With at least superficially greater substance, critics of A-F align themselves with analyses from the Oklahoma Center for Education Policy (at the University of Oklahoma) and the Center for Education Research and Evaluation (Oklahoma State University).

Those two research groups assert that it would amount to “misplaced confidence” to believe the state’s school report cards can be ever be made good tools for evaluation and accountability.

If that’s true, should reformers conclude that it would be another example of “misplaced confidence” to believe that public education performance can, over time, be at least incrementally improved? 

If the existing A-F structure is meaningless, what does one make of grading and evaluation in broader terms? No grading scheme is perfect, whether an individual teacher’s system or system-wide evaluations that intend to remove individual bias and use some “objective” measures for grading. 

Any evaluations without grade inflation are likely to have a large share of critics. Grades are a means to evaluate where things stand – a worthy objective for policymakers and for taxpayers whose resources pay the bills.

To borrow a line from the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “Mend it, don’t end it.” Tossing the A-F system overboard at this stage would merely give the education establishment another easy “do pass” – which it has not earned.

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