On fairness – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

“The recent release of letter grades for Arkansas schools is a reminder that grades can be unfair. Whether it’s covid-19 or poverty, the letter grades can reflect the impact of things beyond many teachers’ and principals’ control.”–“For fairer grades,” Sarah Morris and Sarah McKenzie, Nov. 18, 2022, Voices page
With the Arkansas General Assembly set to convene next month, education policy is on the minds of many Arkansans. In light of recent conversations about the fairness of school letter grades, especially since the pandemic, we would pose a question: Do we continue to debate metrics and confuse the uniform grading scale for students with the annual school ratings procedure, or do we address the learning needs revealed by school ratings?
We agree that the school rating methodology should be reviewed regularly and adjusted as necessary to provide parents and communities a clearer reflection of school performance. Such adjustments will be required when the ACT Aspire assessment is replaced by the new state assessment in the spring of 2024; however, changing the metric doesn’t change the reality–post-pandemic outcomes for our children are at risk if we don’t address them with urgency.
To recount the history of the current school rating process, school ratings are earned based on an index score that incorporates many variables over which schools have control. The ratings also use cut scores determined by more than 200 stakeholders in meetings held in 2017. Through seven rounds of standard-setting, stakeholders identified and ranked school profiles by weighting school characteristics they valued and categorized as deserving of an A, B, C, D, or F. By maintaining consistent cut scores since 2018, the 2022 school letter grades help communicate how well our schools and students are recovering from the historic pandemic’s impacts to learning. Some schools and their students are recovering more quickly than others. That knowledge via the letter grades helps highlight successful recovery strategies.
As we prepare for a new year, it is important to know that all education achievement scores decreased, and not just in Arkansas–other states’ test scores, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, ACT, and other national test results showed declines. The metrics we use, including school letter grades, reveal and underscore the deep impact the pandemic had on students’ learning. It is urgent to address the learning needs revealed by these convergent metrics.
Likewise, as with the school rating system, we agree it is time to revisit student grading and whether the current grading system serves its intended purpose. The uniform grading scale established in Arkansas law leaves ample flexibility for teachers to assign a grade based on things within and beyond students’ control. The differences in grading practices from classroom to classroom, however, make it difficult to know what a student’s grade means about what a student knows and can do with that knowledge. Establishing a “no zero” policy is one idea, but it doesn’t address how to clearly communicate where students are in their learning.
The Arkansas Department of Education and the Office of Innovation for Education at the University of Arkansas have a long partnership in measuring student outcomes and advancing innovation in schools across the state. We can point to great examples of innovation in rural districts like Jasper and large districts like Springdale.
As we look to the future for what is good for students, innovations like standards-based grading and competency-based learning offer the most potential for meaningfully replacing the uniform grading scale. Standards-based grading provides information about what a student knows and is able to do that is tied directly to the expected learning standards and includes clear criteria for what constitutes achievement of those standards. Schools that use standards-based grading and competency-based learning empower students, parents, and teachers through a transparent system for recognizing and evaluating students’ learning as they progress through their educational milestones.
Standards-based grading is not what we grew up with, and schools implementing this approach have encountered difficulty in communicating student progress to parents who are accustomed to the traditional A-F system. To help parents transition to standards-based grading, the standards-based grades can be translated into a mathematical scale to express their meaning in a familiar way.
Ultimately, recognizing and evaluating learning in a standards-based system provides more fairness for students than setting an artificial floor of possible points associated with a grade based on the percentage of points earned.
Yes, fairness is important for schools as well as students. And student outcomes are the driving purpose of our education system. The desire for fairness must not distract us from the urgency of improving those outcomes.
Johnny Key is the secretary of the Arkansas Department of Education. Denise Airola, Ph.D., is the director of the Office of Innovation for Education at the University of Arkansas.

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