Grading Schools as We Grade Students? Hardly

According to the West Virginia Department of Education Policy 2310, the new A through F grading system that will be used to evaluate each state public school “gives parents, students, educators and communities clear and concise information on how well their schools are doing. This system is a new and better way of measuring and reporting school performance each year. Giving schools letter grades for their performance — just as we do for our students — ensures parents, students, educators and communities understand how their schools are performing.”

I am trying to make sense of this new grading system. While it is necessary to determine how schools are performing, this “new and better” system does not give the community “clear and concise information.” This policy is not even close to grading schools “just as we do for our students.”

As a matter of fact, if teachers graded students like the state is grading schools, most students, parents and the West Virginia Department of Education (ironically) would be none too happy.

To say that Policy 2310 is grading schools  “just as we do for our students” is inaccurate. For example, the West Virginia A through F School Grading System grades schools only on one English and one math standardized test, administered to all students in grades 3 through 11. The results of these tests will account for approximately 80 percent of each school’s letter grade (82 percent for elementary and middle school and 76 percent for high school).

Would WVDE want teachers grading students this way? Let’s equate Policy 2310 to hypothetical student Johnny, who works all year, trying to master the required English skills. He reads and interprets seminal U.S. documents, rhetorically analyzes a myriad of difficult texts, writes essays and arguments and research papers, completes individual and team projects that incorporate valid evidence and a variety of media, creates visual and oral presentations. All year, he works on mastering the 41 West Virginia College and Career Ready English Language Arts Standards for his grade level.

He will receive no grades for any of this work, however, nor will he receive any grades for his math, social studies, chemistry, welding, band or engineering classes. The roughly 1,255 hours of work he has produced in all of these classes will not factor into his letter grade. From August to May, the gradebook will be blank.

At the end of the year, Johnny will be given only one English test and one math test, and 80 percent of his entire year’s grade will rest on the success or failure of these tests. His performance in social studies, chemistry, welding, band and engineering will not be factored into his grade.

To further complicate the application of this new A through F school grading system, the public must understand that an A will not always be an A. Once every school’s English and math test scores are determined, the statisticians will work their magic to create a bell curve, which ensures the majority of West Virginia schools in the state will be given a C. Only a select few will be given an A or an F.

Let’s revisit Johnny and his end-of-year classroom test again. Johnny receives a 94 percent on his one and only English test.  The grading scale is 93-100 for an A. He got an A, right?  Maybe. Johnny’s grade of A is not contingent upon how he actually performed on the test. Applying the bell curve, his letter grade is now contingent upon the scores of every student who took the test.  If the majority of his peers also scored a 94, the bell curve requires this score to become a C. If the majority of students who took the test scored a 98 and Johnny’s 94 was the lowest score in the class, Johnny will receive an F if the curve is applied.

When students are graded in class, a 94 is an A. It matters not whether 40 students receive a 94 or one student receives a 94. In contrast, a bell curve guarantees the majority of students must get Cs, and only a select few get the As and Fs.

Try explaining that to Johnny and his parents: “Johnny earned a 94, which is an A on the traditional grading scale. But in this class, a bell curve is used to determine grades. Unfortunately for Johnny, his 94 was the lowest grade in the class, so he had to be given an F on the report card. If his 94 was the highest grade in the class, Johnny would have been given an A.”

Is that an accurate method of determining whether a student has learned the material? Is the assigned letter grade a true reflection of a student’s performance? Would WVDE find it acceptable for teachers to grade students this way?

When this newspaper publishes the schools’ letter grades, please remember that “giving schools letter grades for their performance — just as we do for our students” is not entirely accurate. We would never grade our students the way we are to be graded.

Jonna Kuskey is an English teacher at John Marshall High School. She was the 2014 Marshall County Teacher of the Year and a 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year Finalist.

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