Changes coming in new school letter grades

Sometime this fall Louisiana’s school letter grades will be coming out and for some schools the results might be a shocker. That’s because in many cases it’s likely that scores will go down. But it’s important to understand that, in this case, it might not be as bad as it seems.

Most people would tend to agree that when it comes to having a good understanding of something, transparency is important. It means your getting a clear view of whatever it is you’re looking at. It’s especially important in education. For a variety of reasons, much of what we have seen from Louisiana’s school letter grades has been muddied over the years, but it’s about to become a whole lot clearer – and that’s a good thing.

The first school letter grades were given out following the 2011-12 school year. They were meant to replace an old and confusing rating system and give parents and citizens a better idea of how the schools were actually performing. For the first two years they were pretty straightforward.

Then in 2013, with the introduction of higher academic standards and more rigorous assessments, schools began to be graded on a “curve,” of sorts, to give them time to adapt to the new rigor. It was supposed to last only two years, but for various reasons the curve was extended to four. Now the curve is going away and that’s one of the reasons you can expect to see changes in the letter grades of some schools.

But there’s another reason, too, and in many ways it’s an even bigger one. The new letter grades will be the first to reflect higher expectations we have set for our students – expectations that put them more in line with performance standards in the rest of the country.

In the past, an A-rated school was one where students, on average, were performing at a level of “Basic” or above. It was an appropriate measure in earlier days when we were building our accountability system and trying to boost student performance from very low levels. But it’s no longer right for today. Now we are phasing in a new approach where by 2025 an A-rated school will be expected to have its students performing at the higher level of “Mastery” or above.

So, the curve is gone and we are raising expectations for students. That means that for a number of schools, letter grades are likely to drop. To soften that blow the school report cards released this fall will have two letter grades on them – one which reflects the school’s performance under the old system and one that shows it with the new rigor.

Yes, that can be a little confusing, but it’s designed to illustrate that for many schools their score may have gone down, but it doesn’t mean their actual performance declined. It may even have gone up, but now we have new expectations of how our students and schools should perform.

While the changes have caused some consternation for school officials and may worry parents, we should keep in mind that in the big picture this is a good thing. Our scores will be more reflective of what’s actually going on in our schools and we are moving to higher expectations that are more aligned to the expectations of students nationally. That’s what we want.

And finally, it’s important to remember that we have done this type of thing in the past and our students and teachers responded. There’s no reason to think they won’t do the same thing again.

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