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Missouri schools may get letter grades

Updated: 2013-02-14T04:57:25Z

By JASON HANCOCK

The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent

— Missouri lawmakers could soon decide to hold public schools to the same standards as their students.

The Missouri House Education Committee on Wednesday approved legislation mandating that all public and charter schools be measured on a 100-point scale. That, in turn, would produce letter grades of the A, B, C, D or F variety.

Making those letter grades public, supporters say, would give parents an instantly understandable way to judge their schools.

“We all know the difference between an ‘A’ and an ‘F,’ ” said Rep. Kathy Swan, a Cape Girardeau Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “There are no rewards or sanctions related to this. It’s for informational purposes only. It’s about getting the information out there.”

The bill’s chances look good given that its co-sponsors include House Education Chairman Steve Cookson of Fairdealing and House Speaker Tim Jones of Eureka, both Republicans.

To its critics — which include groups representing teachers and school administrators — the measure oversimplifies a complicated subject in potentially misleading ways. It also has the potential, they contend, to stigmatize a school.

“A letter grade works for students because a teacher can give immediate feedback, talk with their parents and put everything in context,” said Rep. Judy Morgan, a Kansas City Democrat and retired teacher. “But for a school, it doesn’t give parents the information they need to evaluate performance. There’s no single measure for something as complicated as a school.”

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education already publishes a report card for every school on its website. That report includes things such as attendance, graduation rates and student scores on standardized tests.

Swan says that information can be hard for a parent to track down. Even then, she said, it may prove difficult to fully understand.

In a nod to critics, she said the bill would mandate that the letter grade be accompanied by scores on each of the standards used to calculate it and would allow for a plus or minus scale for schools to show year-to-year progress.

“My hope is this will inspire more community involvement,” Swan said. “Not just parents, but business and community leaders. This is about mobilizing the community.”

Putting a single grade on state data “dumbs down” the process of evaluating schools, said Otto Fajen, lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association. It could also obscure relevant information regarding a school’s performance.

“It may well be that the school rated as ‘C’ got that grade because they have more at-risk students,” Fajen said. “But they may be doing a pretty good job of bringing those kids forward.”

If the point of the bill is to make sure parents can easily access information regarding the performance of their child’s school, and the state is already making that information available, Fajen said the bill is not needed.

“Other than adding on the proponent’s rubric about letter grades as a bottom line judgment for a school, everything up to that point is going to be done,” Fajen said. “We fundamentally support the idea of accountability and transparency with this information, but believe labeling them with a letter grade makes it harder for school districts to do their job.”

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter said the department’s website is being redesigned to make the information more user-friendly. Additionally, when performance scores for districts are released to the public in August, they will also include scores for individual schools.

“I think Missourians recognize what 85 percent means,” said Rep. Mike Thomson, a Republican from Maryville. “We don’t have to put a ‘B’ next to it for them to understand.”

Thomson voted in favor of the bill in committee but said he is hopeful changes can be made as it works its way through the legislative process. Simply assigning a letter grade without factoring in a school’s unique circumstances, Thomson said, “can be somewhat punitive.”

Missouri isn’t the only state contemplating the school grading scale. Lawmakers in Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington are pushing similar programs. Florida has had a grading system in place since 1999.

Kate Casas, director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, said state officials put years of work into developing the performance standards they use to evaluate schools and districts. It would be a shame, Casas said, not to translate that data into useful information.

Additionally, she contends that an A-F rating system has the potential to engage parents and influence better outcomes.

“If schools are really interested in authentic parent and community involvement,” she said, “then we are going to have to start telling parents and community members exactly how schools are performing.”

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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