Give Schools Realistic Grades

Many West Virginians may believe their public schools are good, deserving of A or B grades on the scale the state will use beginning next year. But it just isn’t so. A disturbing number of Mountain State schools are not serving students, parents and taxpayers as well as they should.

For years, state evaluations of schools relied on a system that was not very revealing to the public. Terms such as “focus” and “priority” had the ring of education bureaucratese.

But that will change next year. State officials are putting the finishing touches on a system of letter grades, A through F, that anyone can understand.

As Walter Saunders, Ohio County Schools’ director of assessment and federal programs, explained it to our reporter, a variety of criteria will be used to grade schools. Emphasis will be on students’ performance in English and mathematics.

Most high school students know how a teacher determines what levels of performance are needed to earn certain grades. If answering 80 percent of test questions correctly is good enough for an A, well, that is a “cake course.” But if an A requires 93 percent or above, that is another story.

That issue needs to be addressed in the school grading system. Saunders speculates a bell curve will be used at first, with specific achievement levels set later to determine letter grades .

If so, the new system’s first year may be misleading. Bell curve grading allows a few As for top performers and a few Fs for low achievers, with some Bs and some Ds — but mostly Cs handed out. That is so regardless of actual performance. In other words, if a student taking a test answers just 75 percent of questions correctly but has the highest score, he gets an A. Others getting half the answers right may get a C.

Statisticians say there are valid reasons for using bell curves. Still, the potential weakness of the approach should be obvious.

The sooner a realistic, results-based grading system can be established, the better – even if that means no West Virginia schools get A grades.