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Hawkins BOE: Do away with A-F letter grades for school on state report card

Jeff Bobo • Feb 6, 2018 at 2:21 PM

ROGERSVILLE — The majority of Hawkins County school board members want state legislators to change a law that will assign letter grades to schools on the state report card beginning in the 2018-19 school year.

Director of Schools Steve Starnes told the Board of Education on Thursday that the A-F letter grade assessment is an "oversimplification" of the education process.

On Thursday, the BOE voted 5-2 in favor of a sending a resolution to the Tennessee General Assembly asking it to change the wording in Senate Bill 536 and House Bill 449.

The resolution asks that those bills be amended to assign schools the same level identifiers used for school systems as a whole — in need of improvement, marginal, satisfactory, advancing, or exemplary.

Board Chairman Bob Larkins said, "It's a complex formula, and to have a school that would score at a D or an F sends a terrible message, I think, to those students who are performing well, those parents who are doing their part, faculty and staff that's doing a good job, and the community which supports that school. It sends a terrible message to them. There's got to be a better way to do a school improvement for those low-performing schools."

Where did the letter grade system come from?

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires schools to be assessed annually and receive a unique "identifier" or grade on their performance.

Last year, the General Assembly approved Public Chapter 680, which said that every Tennessee school will receive an A-F grade, a singe letter grade, and it will be up to the Department of Education how that grade will be determined.

Next fall, schools will receive letter grades based on their 2017-18 performance if state legislation isn't amended.

But school systems as a whole aren't being given letter grades next year. They will receive one of five identifiers to measure their overall performance including: in need of improvement, marginal, satisfactory, advancing, or exemplary.

That’s what the majority of Hawkins County school board members want for the school level as well.

Complex formula

The letter grade calculation for K-8 takes into consideration four different areas: achievement, growth, chronic absenteeism, and ELPA (English Language Proficiency Assessment — and those have various weights.

Achievement is weighted at 45 percent, growth at 35 percent, and 10 percent each for chronic absenteeism and ELPA.

The high school letter grades also factor in the "Ready to Graduate" assessments, which include graduation rate, the number of students scoring at least a 21 on the ACT, students who earn college credit, and students who earn professional certifications.

For high schools, the letter grade is based 25 percent on Ready to Graduate; 30 percent on achievement, growth is 25 percent, chronic absenteeism is 10 percent and ELPA is 10 percent.

It gets even more complicated

Performance for all students is weighted at 60 percent.

There's also substantial weight added to the performance of subgroups, which are also referred to as "historically under-served" — minorities, the disabled, economically disadvantaged, and English as a second language.

Starnes said, "You're being measured in these four or five different areas, and all these percentages are being averaged together. And then they give you an average grade for all students, they give you an average grade for sub groups, and then they take those two averages and average them into a single letter grade."

He added, "First of all, averaging averages is not statistically sound. Another thing is, it over-simplifies the dynamics of all that goes into education at our schools. We're fine with accountability. We're fine with being given a grade. But give us a grade in each area, which they will, but don't reduce that to a single grade. ... A school may be showing tremendous growth, but their grade may be lowered by other factors, attaching a stigma to the school and its students and faculty.”

Opposition on the board

Board members Tecky Hicks and Chris Christian voted against the resolution.

Hicks said he doesn't agree with the formulas used to assess grades, and that's what needs to change. Hicks said this resolution changes the names of the grades but doesn't change what they mean.

Christian and Hicks both said that instead of changing what type of grade or report card identifier a school receives, low-performing schools may need a change in leadership.

"Our resolution is broad enough to say this isn't the best thing," Larkin noted in reply to the comments of Hicks and Christian. "There's a better mode out there. I think what we're saying as a board is there's a better way of improving low-performing schools, and that's what we're headed for."

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