on learning and leading

“a-f” school accountability

In the political discourse surrounding education these days, there is no more controversial word than “accountability.” Everyone knows that schools should be accountable. Educators know that. Politicians know that. Parents know that. Students know that. Taxpayers know that. The problem is that everyone also “knows” how that accountability should look.

Over the past few years, various special interest groups and politicians have proposed an “A-F” rating system for schools as the answer to the accountability debate. Proponents of such systems claim that these ratings are more easily understood by parents and other stakeholders than the existing systems. (Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe parents can probably understand “Below Average” “Average” “Good” and “Excellent” just fine.) The underlying reality is that this shift is very often a precursor to a school choice or voucher system that allows students in “failing” schools to move to private or private-charter schools that are not subject to the same accountability systems, taking with them resources from the very public schools that need them most.

A few months ago, South Carolina began discussions about a new state accountability system. The Education Oversight Committee released a plan for public opinion, and there was great outcry over the included “A-F” system. Upon gathering public input, the plan ultimately proposed did not include this component.

Today, a member of the House Education and Public Works Committee proposed an amendment to the bill to reinstated the “A-F” system. Knowing this was coming, educators began reaching out to members of the committee over the last few days. I was one of them. After explaining my concern over a system that unfairly punishes schools in our most disenfranchised communities and the potential economic fallout over these ratings, I asked the committee members to remember the public input gathered by the EOC.

One of the committee members replied to my email:

Do you have any studies proving any of these statements?

Here was my reply:

Hi Representative __________,

In large part, that depends upon the matrices that will be used to assign these letter grades. Part of what is disconcerting to me about this amendment is that I have not seen any information regarding how these letter grades would be assigned. If you have any information on that, I would really love to see it so that I can wrap my head around those plans.

Matt DiCarlo, an education policy expert at the Albert Shanker Institute, showed in this article how the A-F grading system in Florida did not lead to significant improvements in low-performing schools on it’s own, but rather gains were “shown” by changing the requirements for earning certain letter grades. 

Maine tried an A-F grading system, and noted that what they found the system to be tracking was not performance, but demographics. Since demographics are often a strong predictor of performance on standardized tests, the A-F grading system unfairly stereotypes schools in struggling areas. 

Indiana tried this system in 2012 and it led to high-level officials tweaking the formula to save the charter school of a political donor. Virginia tried for 2 years to move towards a A-F system but pushed back against it in 2015.  Texas is moving the direction with much controversy, and a study out of Oklahoma showed that their A-F system actually led to regression of school performance, not progress.

As a teacher, I would never label a whole class with an “A” or “F” grade based on the average progress of the students inside. That would not be effective teaching. It would not give effective feedback. It would not paint a clear picture of the learning that is happening and it would not lead to anyone’s growth.

Thank you for reaching out and for considering this issue carefully. I appreciate it so very much!


Thankfully, the amendment was tabled in committee today. But that doesn’t mean it won’t come up again. There is much work left to be done regarding school accountability, and it is essential that educators write their expertise into this story!


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