How "F" Grades Improve Schools
In this April 3, 2014 file photo, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio works on a science project with pre-kindergarten pupil Justin De La Cruz during a visit to P.S.1 in New York. (AP Photo/New York Daily News, Susan Watts)
Schools and districts are doing students and parents a disservice by scrapping letter grades for schools.
School assessment and accountability systems are extremely important to any public school system. What the system measures represents its view of what makes for an effective school, and holding schools accountable is a powerful tool for pushing struggling schools to improve.
A simple and understandable summary measure of each school’s overall performance is essential for an accountability system. The new federal education law requires that states report some summary measure of each school’s overall performance.
Some don’t like clear summary labels – like A through F letter grades -- of school performance. No single measure could possibly describe something as complex as a school, the argument goes. Rather, those opposed to school accountability policies prefer that evaluation systems report lots of information about each school. They claim that this would provide parents and policymakers with a full picture of the school’s attributes. In practice, this provides so much information about a school that it becomes impossible for a parent or curious policymaker to distinguish if it is effective. As a result, ineffective schools simply fly under the radar and feel no strong push to improve.
That’s exactly what has happened in New York City. And kids in the city’s worst schools are paying the price.
Beginning in 2007, New York City’s accountability system assessed schools based on their students’ scores and gains on standardized tests as well as surveys of parents, teachers, and students about the school’s environment. The city made public detailed reports about each school’s performance on a wide variety of measures within each of these categories. In addition, it gave each school a letter grade -- from A to F -- summarizing its overall performance, taking all of these measures into account.
These letter grades were effective. Two studies -- one by me and my coauthor Joshua Cowen of Michigan State University, the other by economists Jonah Rockoff of Columbia and Leslie Turner, now at the University of Maryland -- found that in schools labeled as “failing” in the policy’s first year, student test scores improved substantially the following year relative to how they would have performed had the schools received higher grades. In our paper, we additionally showed that the test score improvements caused by the F grade persisted with the students two years later, suggesting that they were not driven by manipulations to the testing process. In a new study for the Manhattan Institute, I show that a similar positive effect from receiving an F grade was still present in the fall of 2013, six years after the letter grades were first introduced in New York City.
Despite the evidence, fundamentally reshaping the accountability program was an early priority of the administration headed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. The new system would continue to provide detailed information about quality to parents and schools. But no longer would the Department of Education rate a school with a summary letter grade characterizing its overall performance.
In the new accountability system’s first year, the city collected and reported nearly identical information as under the prior policy but omitted the summary letter grades. What happened? Nothing. And that’s the problem.
I calculated the grade that each school would have received had the administration followed the former accountability system’s approach. Unlike in prior years, students in schools that would have received an F (but now didn’t receive it under the new system) didn’t make gains relative to other schools. That is, when the administration discontinued the letter grades, it annihilated a positive effect that the prior system was still having on the city’s worst schools.
New York City’s experience suggests that public reporting of a wide variety of school-performance data does not improve school performance. Without the accompanying letter grade—a measure easily understood by parents of school children to summarize and rank school performance—the incentive to improve may simply not be as strong. To put the point crudely: nothing says failure like an F.
The requirement that states provide each school with a summary performance measure is a valuable part of the new federal education law. With the accountability ball back in their court, states should take a lesson from New York City and meet the requirement with the simple, straightforward, and yet effective strategy of issuing letter grades to schools.