Assembly delays letter grades for schools

Published 9:43 pm Thursday, February 27, 2014

By Chris Suarez

Capital News Service

The General Assembly has approved a bill delaying the implementation of a new grading system for schools earlier this month, but some delegates are questioning if the new system is needed at all.

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This past November, the State Board of Education approved a new A-to-F grading system for individual state schools to supplement the current accreditation system.

The bill that passed unanimously in the House on Wednesday delays incorporating the new grading system for one year, moving the deadline for grades to Oct. 1, 2015.

The idea of introducing a grading system for state schools was rolled out last year as part of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “All Students” K-12 education reform. The grades would be assigned to schools based on students’ “demonstration of proficiency, academic growth and college and career readiness,” according to a November 2013 press release from the Virginia Board of Education.

Some legislators and teacher’s unions say more time is needed to assess how grades should be assigned.

“The A-through-F grading only grades poverty,” said Sen. John C. Miller, a Democrat who represents part of Suffolk. “It doesn’t give a true indication of what goes on in schools.”

Senate Bill 324, the bill introduced by Miller, which would delay implementing the new grading system by three years, was combined with a companion bill, House Bill 1229, by the House Committee on Education.

Miller said he introduced the three-year delay after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Patricia Wright requested it. Wright says data still needs to be collected to make a fair assessment, according to Miller.

Miller’s bill sought to include grades for experience and qualifications of teachers, funding per pupil, extracurricular activities, percentage of children eligible for free or reduced cost lunch, percentage of English language learners and other factors.

“The criteria need to include more factors that impact a child’s education,” Miller said. “If we’re going to give a grade, we ought to give a grade that properly reflects what’s happening in our schools.”

While Miller’s bill outlined other factors that should be considered when assigning grades, the bill as it passed the House leaves standards for what may or may not be graded up to further legislation. The House bill states the process would grade schools’ performances based on “standards of accreditation, state and federal accountability, and student growth indicators.”

“I think the Department of Education made it more complicated than it needs to be,” said Delegate Steve Landes, R-Verona, the chief patron of HB1229. “The criteria they came up with are convoluted and complicated. It’s not easy for the school systems, teachers or parents to understand what the grades mean.”

Landes says he’s undecided on whether a single grade or a more comprehensive report card would be more beneficial for educators and families, but the year-long delay would provide more time for debate.

“I think he’s (Miller) doing the exact thing we’re trying to avoid: complicating it,” Landes said. “We need to make it simpler, more transparent and easier for people to understand.”

While some legislators debate the time frame and manner of grading, other state officials and education organizations are strongly opposed to a letter-grade system.

The Virginia Education Association has come out in opposition to the letter-grade system. VEA President Meg Gruber says schools with high numbers of English language learners, low-income students, special education participants and other factors may affect a school’s grade and cause further disparity with high-grade schools.

Earlier this month, Delegate Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County, told The Virginian-Pilot the new grading system is similar to painting schools with a “scarlet letter.”

The bill that approved the letter-grade system last year was introduced by Delegate Thomas Greason, R-Lansdowne. According to a Loudon Times report, Greason drafted the legislation after attending events hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank that has lobbied for letter-grade systems in several states.

“Research will show you that there is not one state that has implemented an A-to-F grading system of their public schools that has been accurate or successful,” Gruber said. “Florida right now is looking at placing a moratorium on it because it’s so flawed … Why are we putting in place a system that isn’t working anywhere else?”