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School Classifications vs. Letter Grades

Release Date: 

August 18, 2014

You might have seen that the Washington Policy Center has released its own achievement index (based on the State Board of Education and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Washington State Achievement Index) issuing A through F- grades. The State Board of Education again, see blog post from last year, opposes the letter grade approach.

The Index measures student proficiency in math, reading, writing and science, student growth, and college and career readiness (currently just high school graduation rate). The Index identifies high-performing schools for recognition and low-performing schools for support. The emphasis is improvement and recognition, not punishment.

An Index rating from 1-10 (one being the lowest and 10 the highest) is computed for each school, and a school classification based in part on the Index rating, but also factoring in federal requirements. School classifications include: Exemplary, Very Good, Good, Fair, Underperforming, and Lowest 5%.

The color-coding and descriptive school classifications make it easy for parents and the public to understand. The A-F- grading system doesn’t match up with the school classifications and mischaracterizes the performance level of some schools. A “Fair” school (light green) doesn’t deserve a D grade. As you can see it is near the center of the bell curve indicating it is a little below average.

Screenshot of school classifications, showing number of schools in each category: Exemplary, Very Good, Good, Fair, Underperforming, Lowest 5%

An A-F- grading system oversimplifies school data and damages schools in the process. The Index details of each school gives a better picture of where schools are excelling and where they need to improve. Below is an example. This school is excelling in proficiency and graduation rate, but it needs to improve in student growth. Does it deserve a C grade? Is a C grade more meaningful than the detailed information available in the Washington State Achievement Index?

Screenshot of Achievement Index table showing proficiency, growth, and career/college readiness for the "all students" group and for targeted subgroups of students

Labeling a school as failing with an F or F- (which doesn’t exist) becomes nearly impossible to overcome in developing a partnership with the school towards meaningful change. A letter grade does not do justice to the complexity of school performance and increases the risk of alienation and demoralization with no potential gain.

Please don’t make a snap judgment about a school based on an arbitrary letter grade. If you would like to know how a school performed in 2012-2013, check out their Washington State Achievement Index data to get a more complete picture.

The Board will continue to utilize the Index to recognize excellence in our public schools through the Washington Achievement Awards, and as a valuable tool of analysis for all of Washington’s schools.

~ Sarah Lane,
Communications Manager


Media Contact: 

Alissa Muller, SBE Communications Manager, (360) 725-6501