What is an “A” School, Really?

When EdNavigator released its 2017 grades for K-8 schools in Louisiana recently, about 40 percent of schools received a different grade than they received from the state’s official grading system—even though both sets of grades draw on the same data.

Why? Because EdNavigator’s grades put much more emphasis on student growth from year-to-year. In contrast, the state’s current grades are based almost entirely on student test pass rates. Under that approach, schools enrolling higher-performing students are likely to receive top grades no matter what type of instruction they provide, because their students arrived ready to meet the demands of annual tests. On the other hand, schools enrolling students who begin further behind may receive lower grades no matter what — even if they do an outstanding job moving students forward.

Comparing Performance

Let’s dig deeper into why this is problematic by looking at two groups of schools: schools that received an A from the state, but a B from EdNavigator (we’ll call them Group 1); and schools that received a B from the state, but an A from EdNavigator (Group 2).

Group 1 includes 51 schools. In a nutshell, these are schools that knocked it out of the park on the state’s rating system. On average, they received a School Performance Score of 104.7, which is better than 85 percent of schools in the state. That’s very good. Students are passing state tests at high rates. That’s why Group 1 schools received A grades from the state.

However, student growth at Group 1 schools is not exceptional. Only 48.8 percent of students met or exceeded their individual growth goal in English Language Arts, which is slightly below average for the state, and exactly 50.0 percent met or exceeded their individual growth goal in Math. In basic terms, only about half of the students in these schools progressed as much as they should have during the most recent school year.

That’s why Group 1 schools received B grades from EdNavigator. To be considered A schools under our rating system, they need to advance student learning more consistently.

Now let’s look at Group 2: 45 schools that received B grades from the state, but A grades from EdNavigator. On average, they earned a School Performance Score of 94.7 from the state, which is better than about 70 percent of schools statewide. So, they did pretty well; much better than average, but not in the elite range. That’s why the state gave Group 2 schools a B.

But when it comes to growth, Group 2 did very well. Overall, 61.7 percent of students in these schools met or exceeded their growth goal for English Language Arts and 67.0 percent met or exceeded their goal for Math. Those results are strong, especially in Math. Regardless of where students started, most of them are advancing. That’s why EdNavigator assigned A grades to Group 2.

Wait, don’t the students in Group 1 just have less room to grow?

A common criticism of using student growth in this way is that it’s "harder" for schools and students to demonstrate progress when they’re already performing well. But that’s not really the case here. There were plenty of schools – 164, in fact – in Louisiana that received A grades from the state and A grades from EdNavigator, too. Those schools had higher School Performance Scores than Group 1 schools (indicating higher proficiency) as well as significantly higher growth.

So which group of schools is better?

Let’s take a step back. Which group of schools is better, at least based on these measures?* What should it mean to be a top performing school in Louisiana? Group 1 has higher test pass rates, but its students are growing at average rates. Group 2 has good test pass rates and its students are growing at very good rates. The graphic below illustrates the basic difference between them.

We would argue that it’s a pretty easy call – Group 2 deserves higher marks.

You’ll know you’ve come upon a good school because it has an instructional program that gets results for families. It moves students of all ability levels to better outcomes. We need to be cautious about labeling schools “good” because students arrive with fewer needs. Even higher performing students deserve quality teaching that helps them maximize their potential. When we see students running in place, it ought to be a cause for concern. It shouldn’t be a cause for an A grade.

Most A-rated schools in Louisiana have earned that designation. They have strong test results and strong student growth. They are truly top performers. It is important for us to recognize these schools as exemplars and applaud their success.

But not every school that has been earning an A under the current rating system is actually a top performing school, as we’ve shown here, and some very worthy schools are being overlooked. We hope the state moves forward with its plans to revise the grading system so it does a better job of rewarding not just schools where high achievement is the norm, but also schools where students are beating the odds.

* We can probably all agree that students’ test results are far from the only measure of a good school, as we’ve noted before. But if a school’s primary responsibility is to help students learn, test score data offers an important indicator of each school’s overall performance.

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