Why Ohio should stick with A–F school grades

Getty Images/liveslow

The debate around Ohio’s school report cards continues to simmer. An outspoken critic since last year’s report card release, Representative Mike Duffey recently unveiled House Bill 591. His proposal would replace the state’s current report card framework, which includes A–F school ratings, with a “data dashboard” that displays an array of data—yet provides no school ratings or letter grades whatsoever. Representative Duffey has a few legitimate beefs with school report cards, some of which we agreed with in a paper published last year on improving state report cards. Unfortunately, he targets the state’s A–F grading system for removal without recognizing its strengths, akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Why A–F? Let’s take a look.

Reason 1: It’s intuitive

Virtually all of us received A–F grades during our educational experiences. And for good reason: They remain simple, intuitive tools for communicating academic achievement. The vast majority of high schools and colleges continue to use this traditional grading system, including highly respected central Ohio school districts, such as Bexley, Dublin, Upper Arlington, Westerville, and Worthington. So do first-rate institutions of higher education, like Case Western Reserve, Oberlin, and Ohio State University, to name just a few. A few schools have tried moving to other systems, but several had to reverse course after parents complained about their inability to comprehend their own child’s report cards. According to a 2016 Chicago Tribune article, one discombobulated parent said that her school’s newfangled report card “tells me nothing.” Like it or not, A–F grading is baked into our DNA and remains the clearest way to communicate educational performance, whether at a student, school, or district level. No other grading system—including no grades at all, as in a dashboard system—can match A–F on the basis of transparency to parents and the public.

Reason 2: It’s honest

Letter grades pull no punches: An A represents hard work, high-quality, and a job well done, while an F is a red flag that something is going wrong. In comparison to other alternatives, A–F provides the most forthright approach to providing feedback. Consider a few other possibilities. One option is to use descriptive ratings. But these can be ambiguous; for example, Ohio formerly gave out a “Continuous Improvement” report card rating. Those in education knew that this label was a euphemism for mediocre performance, yet to the general public it communicated little about school quality and could even wrongly suggest that a school was improving when it had a higher rating the prior year. Another option is to rate schools on tiers, but when it comes to chronically-low-performing schools, a designation of Tier 1—or is it Tier 4?—doesn’t provide the brutal honesty of an F letter grade. (Conversely, a Tier 4 rating doesn’t have quite the pizazz of a “We got an A!”) Lastly, dashboards provide a blizzard of numbers but no help or guidance on how to interpret them. It’s like handing ordinary citizens the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States and telling them to draw conclusions about the economy. Sure, the data are the data, but where does one even start when trying to make sense of it all?

At the end of the day, A–F grading remains the clearest, most honest way to convey school performance. In turn, it holds the most promise of engaging families and communities in celebrating well-earned success or urging changes when performance isn’t up to par.

Reason 3: It provides helpful pressure on schools

“A little pressure never hurt,” was a bit of advice I once received. That saying rings true in many areas of our lives, whether it’s getting a nudge from the boss or prodding a business to work a little harder for you. Similar principles apply in education. The best and most caring teachers put healthy pressure on their students to do their best. They check-up on homework, call on students during class, and set expectations and deadlines for projects. Likewise, districts and schools are apt to function a little better when facing some pressure to deliver results. Rigorous research by Princeton’s Cecilia Rouse and colleagues found that student achievement in Florida schools rose as a result of tougher accountability policies, including the introduction of A–F report cards under Governor Jeb Bush. Though that analysis spans the early to mid-2000s, Florida students continue to register impressive gains on national exams as state leaders have stayed the course on accountability (as has Mississippi, another state with A–F grading). To be sure, accountability policies shouldn’t be unfair, cruel, or excessively punitive. But Ohio also needs to maintain a transparent system that can spur improvements and guard against complacency.

* * *

Well-designed report cards put student learning at the center and convey results in clear ways to parents and the public. In devising solid report cards, half the battle is striking the right balance between student achievement and growth metrics. On this count, Ohio lawmakers have work ahead to revamp the state report card system. But the other half is finding an effective way to communicate results to parents and the general public. To their credit, Ohio and thirteen other states have chosen an approach that is intuitive and offers maximum honesty—an A–F system that everyone can comprehend. No other grading system offers the same level of transparency, and data dashboards as the primary mode of communicating results are the most opaque of all. With achievement in Ohio barely inching upwards, state legislators would be wrong to abandon a grading system that candidly depicts educational performance and offers the best chance of focusing schools on student learning.

 
 
Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.