TSS Blog

School Letter Grades are coming. Misconceptions shouldn’t overshadow the benefits of transparency and accountability.

The Tennessee Department of Education’s upcoming rollout of School Letter Grades has many parents, teachers, and administrators waiting in anticipation to see how their school measures up to other schools in their community and across the state.

When it launches next month, School Letter Grades will award an A through F grade to each public school in Tennessee. This grading scale is an accountability and transparency tool, intended to provide parents with clear and accurate information of their child’s school.

Obviously, the way the state calculates those grades is critical and that’s why a working group comprised of more than forty stakeholders regularly met this month to recommend a calculation that’s fair and factual. While many are supportive of the program’s intent, some have referred to its implementation as hasty, overly complicated, and favoring achievement over growth measures.

Concern around the program and how it will affect schools is understandable, but some of the criticism that’s making its way through Tennessee so far has been more myth than reality.

A hasty affair?

The grading scale’s seemingly short developmental timeline has led some to label it a rushed job that will not result in a true reflection of school quality.  This can be misleading.

The Tennessee General Assembly originally passed the law in 2016, however, program implementation was pushed back due to a lack of reliable data and Covid-19.  Setbacks aside, the law’s prescriptions have been unchanged since 2016, requiring achievement and growth, and allowing other reliable indicators to factor into the final formula.

Further, while the working group assigned to deliberate over the formula’s details began meeting in early October, the department held townhall meetings and collected public comment months prior.

The grading scale did not spring up overnight.

Too complicated?

Another concern voiced by some was that the makeup of the letter grades would be nearly indecipherable to the target audience—namely parents.  This does not give parents of Tennessee public school students nearly enough credit.

While the math involved in calculating growth and achievement weighting may be complex, parents know the difference between exam scores and year-to-year student improvement and understand that both are important accountability measures.

Achievement versus growth

Though the grading scale has not been released, some have speculated that student achievement measures will be weighted more heavily than growth.  This raises the concern that lower achieving schools demonstrating consistent improvement in student proficiency will not receive a letter grade that accurately reflects instructional quality.  It is further argued that this will have a disproportionately negative impact on schools in economically disadvantaged areas.

While it is still uncertain how each indicator will be weighted in the grading scale, most members of the working group agreed that growth should factor equally or nearly equally to achievement.  In addition, many members proposed including growth of students in at-risk groups, such as economically disadvantaged or students with disabilities.  If this measure is included in the final formula, low-income schools may have some advantages over those in more affluent areas.

The letter grade scale is first and foremost an accountability and transparency tool.  Some schools may not receive the grade they want, and it is understandable that they are upset.  However, this tool also gives schools the opportunity to recognize areas of improvement and make meaningful changes that will benefit students.

We believe every public school in Tennessee is capable of earning an A, but they can only start on the path to progress tomorrow if they know where they stand today.

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