A Parent’s Reflection on School Letter Grades

Last week, I made the argument that North Carolina’s decision to assign letter grades to individual schools based on nothing more than test scores on final exams was a form of institutional racism that harms communities of poverty and strips support away from the public school system.  I was writing as an advocate for public schools and poor communities — two causes that I feel are under attack by our state’s super conservative legislature.

But I’m not JUST an advocate for public schools and poor communities any more.  I am also the parent of a second grade daughter who attends a public school.  So crappy choices made by our legislators hurt MY kid.  This issue is personal.

My daughter’s school is nothing short of a remarkable place.  EVERY time that I stop by, I feel a sense of happiness from everyone that I meet.  Students smile and skip and laugh and joke with each other and with their teachers.  Teachers are relaxed and joyful, invested in each other and in their students.  Provocative questions are being asked and answered, positive messages are being shared in conversations and in school-wide displays, and programs that concentrate on developing the whole child — from daily Spanish instruction for every student to rich music and art experiences that are valued equally alongside more traditional content-specific subjects — are a priority.

The community overwhelmingly supports my daughter’s school.  Thousands of parents and children turn out for after school events — whether they be teacher talent shows, campus beautification projects, or annual 5K run walks — to work, to play and to celebrate with one another.  Each of these events is a reminder that our school isn’t just a place of learning — it’s a place to belong.  Lots of schools like to talk about being a family.  My daughter’s school actually FEELS like a family.


But they were rated a C — which means something akin to “decidedly average” — by the State of North Carolina last week.  And that has me worried.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not worried about the current quality of the education that my daughter’s getting.  I’ve seen the impact that the people in her building have had on her.  She is LOVED by darn near everyone and she knows it.  She is learning the kinds of academic and social skills that I want her to learn in a place where learning really IS seen as a joyful act worthy of celebration.   She has role models to look up to who challenge her to be better than who she is — and I am convinced that those role models see her as something much more than just a test score.

What I am worried about is the consequences that a C rating will have on the choices that her teachers make.

My guess is that it has been a stressful beginning of the school year for everyone at my daughter’s school.  In a district that takes a lot of pride from having top “performing” students (read: really high test scores), being rated a C is guaranteed to leave everyone rattled and questioning their practices.  There have probably been some serious conversations about changes that have to be made to get those test scores up for next year — and there is probably external pressure coming from folks in the district office to find solutions so that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

And there’s NO doubt that those “solutions” are going to strip away some of what makes my daughter’s school such an unique place.  Questions will probably be asked about the value of daily Spanish instruction in a building with low test scores.  Wouldn’t that time or those dollars be better spent on another reading interventionist?  There will probably be more benchmark testing and more students pulled out of specials or out of the regular classroom in order to make sure that they are “progressing enough” to “produce better results” on next year’s end of grade exams.

Her teachers — particularly those with the lowest test scores — are less likely to run with moments of inspiration in the classroom.  After all, student curiosity is messy and time consuming.  Increasing test scores depends on efficiency and focus.  Worse yet, her teachers are more likely to see kids like my daughter — who ISN’T a strong reader — as a frustrating liability instead of as a quirky ball of happy energy.  Why would you celebrate uniqueness when standardized outcomes are the only outcomes valued by the people governing your schools?

There’s even a good chance that these changes — increased stress and pressure, fewer opportunities to celebrate curiosity, shifts away from valuing the whole child to valuing the parts of a child that actually impact a school’s “measurable results” — will drive some of the best teachers away from my daughter’s school. Once you’ve had the chance to work in a place where joyful learning is a priority, it’s hard to see that priority erased in favor of chasing higher test scores.

My only hope is that the teachers of my daughter’s school will realize just HOW important — and HOW valued — their work really is.

There is NOTHING “decidedly average” about the learning space that they have created.  Children feel loved, parents feel welcomed, and students are learning WAY more than a single C rating based on nothing more than standardized tests could ever possibly communicate.  In my book — filled with experiences as a teacher and a professional developer in probably close to 100 schools in dozens of states and several different countries — they are a solid A.  I’d work there in a minute.

But more importantly, I’d send my daughter there for the rest of her school career without any reservation, convinced that she’d be a better person as a result of the care and attention of the teachers that she had a chance to learn from.



Related Radical Reads:

Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

Learning > Schooling


5 thoughts on “A Parent’s Reflection on School Letter Grades

  1. Pingback: OTR Links 09/12/2016 | doug --- off the record

  2. Matt Townsley

    Here in my home staet, we are starting this thing called the “Iowa School Report Card” (http://reports.educateiowa.gov/schoolreportcard). While no letter grades are attached, we have ratings such as “acceptable” and “commendable.” I am not sure if we’re are any better off and how much the public is paying attention to these ratings (so far). I’m not sure which is better — allowing the public to review the schools (a la Amazon reviews of a product) OR reviewing schools based on a slew of standardized test scores and other factors far away from students. Sad.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Matt,

      I’m always torn about this stuff, too. I truly believe that the reason we got into this “accountability mess” is because we didn’t hold ourselves accountable for the success of students to begin with. There were too many schools who were overlooking the fact that too many students weren’t succeeding. The whole No Child Left Behind reporting drama — the grandfather of all of the current school letter grade craze — at least brought transparency to what we know about the academic success of students.

      But I really am tired of the fact that we don’t realize that “success” means a hell of a lot more than “scores on end of grade exams.” If we were more sophisticated about our evaluations of both teachers and schools — and more transparent about the outcomes that we value the most — I could get behind rating schools.

      Sadly, that’s never happened.


  3. alimcollins

    Thank you SO much for sharing this. I am also concerned about the way test scores are used to punish teachers, students and schools. As a former teacher, I think tests can be valuable, but when used inappropriately, and out of context, they become ways to blame teachers and marginalize under-resourced communities.

    In SF, we use a variety of methods to assess quality for public schools. I am glad our state and district don’t evaluate teachers based on test scores. Nonetheless, even when you include non-academic measures like suspension rates and attendance, in many cases the school rating only serves as an indicator of the number of low-income or Black/Brown students.

    Whether you agree with a more comprehensive rating system or not, it almost doesn’t matter. Recently an article came out in our local SF Biz Times sharing the “Best Schools” list. These ratings came from a new start-up called Niche.com which also rates schools with grades.

    As it turns out, there is a whole industry predicated on “grading” schools. GreatSchools and Niche both profit from their ratings systems because companies in the online real estate sector pay to advertise on their sites. (Zillow pays GreatSchools, and Realtor.Com pays Niche.) These companies don’t care about the effects of giving schools “good” or “bad” ratings on the communities they serve. Additionally, they create unwarranted worry about our public education system and especially schools that serve low-income, minority, and immigrant children.

    Ultimately, this is all a form of Educational Redlining, created to justify divestment in public education for Black/Brown children and increased segregation in schools. Thank you again for pushing back on the false narrative that “grading” schools somehow informs parents or improves education.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      That’s a SUPER articulate response, Ali. Super jazzed to have your thinking here.

      Thanks for taking the time to share this in such a thoughtful way.

      Rock on,

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