It’s official. Tennessee schools will now be graded on an A-F scale beginning in 2018. Tennessee Department of Education officials and other education policy wonks believe this grading system will be a helpful tool for parents choosing a school for their child.
They might be right, but I think it’s risky. I’m glad those leaders are considering parents’ need for an easy way to see how schools are doing, but as a parent who has exercised choice, I know it’s not a simple task. There are so many things to consider when choosing a school and my hope is that parents see the grade for what it is, a tool to assist in the process.
Beyond the Grade
While I typically side with tools and practices that help parents do what’s best for their children, I’m slow to jump on this bandwagon. Grading systems, either for children or schools, don’t always paint an accurate picture of what’s really happening. When present, the grades often become the only thing parents look at and all other factors are suddenly ignored.
Lane Wright, an editor at Education Post wrote about school grades recently and said, “without such a system, parents are on their own to figure out how much more important graduation rates are than test scores, or growth scores, or test participation rates.” I respect that argument, but while these data points are important factors for considering a school, they are not always at the top of the list for most parents.
There is no shortage of studies that tell us why parents choose schools. But more often than not, these decisions seem to be rooted in race and socioeconomic status and indicators such as school distance, extracurricular activities, and school climate are top considerations.
For instance, a Washington D.C. study funded by the Walton Foundation found:
“Middle school parents were willing to travel a half-mile farther to go to a school if 50 percent of students are the same race as their children. But they were willing to drive even farther to avoid having their children be in a small minority—say a school where 10 versus 20 percent of the students are in the same group.”
Further, in this 2015 New Orleans study, “the lowest-income New Orleans families were even more likely to pick schools that were close by, that offered extended days, and that had football and band in high school — and, conversely, they had a weaker preference for schools based on test scores.”
Climate and Culture Matter, Too
While these two cities are vastly different from nearly every city Tennessee, my personal experience echoes these studies. I know parents who dig into the minutiae of growth, achievement, teacher efficacy, and staff/leadership retention, but I also know parents whose chief concerns are for a school to be welcoming, safe and accessible.
In short, I fear the over-reliance on letter grades. I agree it’s an easier way for parents to assess a school’s performance, but it’s also an easier way for parents to dismiss important aspects of a school’s performance without even realizing they’re doing it. So it is incumbent upon school and community leaders to do their due diligence by ensuring parents continue to do the work that comes with choosing a school.