Why Letter Grades Matter

letter grades

New York City schools will no longer receive letter grades. You can read about it here.

It is likely that Chancellor Farina and I have different opinions on the role of government in schooling.

Chancellor Farina likely believes that government should operate schools and that the district’s central office should support struggling schools. In this system, developing a robust academic central office becomes a top government priority.

I believe government should regulate a system where non-profit organizations operate schools. I also believe families should be able to choose amongst these school. In this system, providing clear, transparent information becomes a top government priority. 

Of course, government can provide information in numerous ways.

Because of my experience in New Orleans, I consider letter grades to be amongst the best way to provide information to families.

When I first started working in New Orleans, schools in Louisiana were graded on a star rating system. This did not provide clear information to families because most families could not, on a gut level, distinguish between a two star, three star, or four star school.

We then moved to a letter grade system. However, we did not put a school’s letter grade on the universal enrollment form that listed all schools in the city (and which families used to enroll their children via the citywide enrollment system). As such, families had to locate the letter grade from either the citywide school’s guide or the education department’s website.

When we analyzed the data, we were surprised how many families selected “D” and “F” schools on the universal enrollment form.

We did not know if this was because families did not care about the low letter grades or because they did not believe that letter grades were a good indicator of school quality.

So the following year we put the letter grade next to each school’s name on the universal enrollment form.

When we analyzed the data this time, there was much stronger correlation between school performance (as measured by letter grades) and family demand.

So here’s what we learned. Families utilized government information on school performance when: (1) the city developed a universal enrollment system (2) performance information was provided in letter grade form (2) and letter grades were noted on the enrollment form.

All of this makes me highly skeptical that NYC’s 16-18 page information packet on each school is going to help families make good decisions. Especially when it doesn’t include any kind of final rating.

Of course, if you don’t believe that school performance can be captured in a singular rating, then my whole argument is beside the point.

But as it happens, test scores are one of the few areas of school performance that can be reliably measured and are connected to life outcomes.

As such, I think it’s one of the only metrics that government should use to grade a school. The quality of other important aspects of schooling (athletics, character building, etc.) are all best determined by families. At most, government should provide narrative descriptions of school offerings.

The fact is that if: (1) government executes a sound testing regime and (2) translates the resulting performance into a reasonable letter grade system then (3) families will get very valuable information on the quality of schools.

Without letter grades, families know significantly less about the quality of public schools.

And when families know less about the quality of public schools, they end up sending their children to schools that will negatively affect their children’s life outcomes.

This is why letter grades matter.

1 thought on “Why Letter Grades Matter

  1. Pingback: Do we really need grades? - The Lasso

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