November 13, 2023
When the Tennessee Department of Education rolls out its School Letter Grades dashboard next month our state will be joining a dozen others that provide the public with an A-F letter grade measuring how well schools are serving children.
These grades will provide the public with important accountability and transparency, but some opponents have been making a big deal out of supposedly similar grading systems in Utah and Michigan that have been repealed.
This argument may seem reasonable on its face. After all, if other states were unsuccessful in this endeavor, why would Tennessee be? Yet this reasoning is fundamentally flawed.
While states may be the laboratories of democracy, they are not always conducting the same experiments. The grading systems in Utah and Michigan differ extensively from Tennessee’s and lawmakers repealed them for reasons that don’t apply here.
While Utah’s school letter grade system was intended as an accountability and transparency tool, much like Tennessee’s, the similarities end there.
Utah favored a simplistic platform centered around the letter grade itself, with little contextual data explaining how the state calculated the school’s grade. Critics of the program considered the grades reductive and punitive.
In contrast, Tennessee’s presentation of the letter grades will include a full breakdown of data points used in the calculation, at-risk student growth and achievement, and the earned grade will have no negative impact on school funding.
Some critics in Tennessee even went as far as labeling the system too complicated—a far cry from the concerns voiced in Utah.
The issues surrounding Michigan’s A-F system were even less similar to Tennessee than Utah.
Michigan was already using a school index system to measure schools along a 0-100 scale before adding a new A-F grading scale. Critics noted the duplicity between the two grading systems and lack of compliance with federal guidelines.
Unlike Michigan, Tennessee had no prior statewide school accountability measure, and the Tennessee Department of Education has ensured the upcoming grading system aligns closely with federal guidelines.
With the repeal, an average performing school in Michigan might now be identified as 38% (the state average) instead of a C. If anything, the score produced by the state’s school index system could be perceived as less forgiving and more confusing than a simple letter grade. The repeal was not the widespread rejection some have claimed it to be, but rather an elimination of duplicity.
Interestingly, after repealing school letter grades, Utah and Michigan both opted to either retain or expand their public dashboards for school report cards, to include a full breakdown of inclusive data points and at-risk student groups. Sound familiar?
The only difference beyond the absence letter grades is that Utah and Michigan’s dashboards do not consolidate school data on one page, leading to a remarkably confusing interface for anyone without a degree in data science and analytics.
If Tennessee can learn anything from Utah and Michigan’s experiments, perhaps it is what not to do.
While critics to the grading scale have referenced a large departure from single, summative school grades, two examples hardly constitute a trend. Further, comparisons drawn between states ignore key modular and contextual differences between the systems.
We ought to start comparing apples to apples before recommending that Tennessee follow in the footsteps of others.