Valentina is a legislative analyst for StudentsFirst, a bipartisan grassroots movement working to improve the nation’s schools. 

Every year, Ohio’s public schools are responsible for educating 1.8 million students. To ensure that all students are making learning gains and meeting academic expectations, the Buckeye State needs a system in place to hold schools and school districts accountable for student performance. The Ohio Department of Education is currently redesigning Ohio’s accountability system, and lawmakers have promised to put a new Report Card system into law by the end of December.

In its ongoing efforts to improve student achievement, the Ohio General Assembly can benefit by understanding A-F accountability reforms in other states. Whereas Ohio’s current school rating system uses ambiguous terms like “effective,” “academic watch,” and “continuous improvement” to report on school and district performance, other states are moving towards easier-to-understand, A-F summative ratings. We at StudentsFirst recommend that states issue annual letter grades for all schools and districts based on student achievement. Implementing a letter grading system holds schools and districts accountable for the results they produce, provides parents with understandable information about the schools their children attend, and encourages school improvement efforts.

Done well, A-F rating systems place the focus on students by underscoring student achievement. Because the criteria used to determine school grades are objective and results-focused, educators are held accountable for their students’ progress. Many states that employ A-F school grading systems include proficiency scores, learning gains, and progress toward closing the achievement gap. To further improve these systems, states must also have the flexibility to include other indicators of achievement, such as graduation rates and SAT/ACT scores, which reflect college and career readiness.

School report cards help empower parents by making student and school performance more transparent and understandable. For example, when school report cards are distributed in an attendance area where a school is rated as “F,” for “failing,” the parents of the students at that school and all community members are empowered by the information. School letter grading systems can provide Ohio parents with easy-to-understand information, just like their child’s report card. And by issuing grades to schools, parents can more easily compare performance between schools and districts in their area, as well as their own school’s performance over time. This information is necessary to understand the quality of education options available to Ohio families.

In addition to providing parents with more information, an A-F grading systems give schools and districts an incentive to work toward improving student achievement. When grades are published and publicly available, schools and districts cannot hide from their performance as they can under Ohio’s ambiguous and euphemistic designations such as “continuous improvement” (C) and “academic watch” (D). Along with school accountability, states can use these systems to determine strategies for turning around schools that are continuously low performing, which could include requiring a school improvement plan or allowing the state, or even a mayor or some other local authority, to take over management and operations of the schools when they receive a failing grade. Toward that end, Ohio should require three year improvement plans for all schools receiving a grade of D or F – as was proposed in Senate Bill 316 – in an effort to raise student achievement in troubled schools. Adopting such policies would provide immediate steps for improving more than 350 Buckeye State school buildings.[1]

Ohio would not be alone in implementing an improvement plan for schools receiving failing grades. In Arizona, for example, schools that are assigned a grade of “D” must submit an improvement plan to the Arizona Department of Education. In New Mexico, parents with students enrolled in schools that receive a grade of “F” during two of the last four years have the right to transfer them to any public school in the state that’s better performing or to enroll them in a distance learning program through a statewide or local cyber academy. Furthermore, the New Mexico Department of Education ensures that schools and districts that received grades of “D” and “F” are dedicating resources to programs linked to improved student achievement at least until the school earns a grade of “C” or better for two consecutive years.

Other states, such as Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee have begun moving toward an A-F school report card system by including it as a component of their ESEA waiver. Alabama, Indiana and Utah already have A-F school report cards in place similar to those used by Florida, New Mexico and Arizona.

In 1999, Florida became the first state to implement school grading. When it first began grading schools, the state had more schools receiving D and F than it did A and B, which constituted just 21 percent of the school grades. A decade later, however, there were ten times as many A schools in Florida as there were D and F schools. In 2010, 74 percent of Florida’s schools earned a grade of A or B, and the bar for achieving these higher grades has been raised four times The chart below shows the results of Florida’s letter grading policy. The dotted lines indicate the times when the standard for achieving a grade was raised. This improvement in achievement shows that transparent school accountability systems do in fact produce higher-quality schools.

Source: Foundation for Excellence in Education, “Florida’s Education Revolution,” accessed September 25, 2012.

Over the past three years, Ohio has become a leader in education reform by passing legislation that strives to put students first. With important measures such as rigorous annual evaluations for teachers and principals, clear accountability measures for charter schools, and a comprehensive reform plan to improve schools in Cleveland, Ohio is taking steps toward improving student achievement. Implementing an A-F school grading system is another pivotal step in improving Ohio’s education system and will keep the Buckeye State at the forefront of education reform.

[1] If schools currently defined as “academic watch” and “academic emergency” are graded D and F, respectively. Ohio Department of Education. "Data." Fall Enrollment. 2012.

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