Oklahoma school officials: Scrap A-F grades for schools and students

Ray Carter | October 3, 2023

During a legislative study this week, school officials urged lawmakers to scrap the state’s A-F school report cards—and indicated they want to do the same for students even though parents oppose that move.

“We are moving away from A-to-F grades as quickly as we possibly can,” said Rob Miller, superintendent of Bixby Public Schools. “In our elementary schools it’s standards-based. There is a final grade, simply because our parents ask for it. But we’re trying to break that down so that we’re communicating to parents what their child knows and is able to do and not just focus on a standard, one-letter grade for class. At the secondary level, we’re doing the same thing, but because of requirements for graduation and all those sorts of things, it’s a little bit more complex process.”

Miller made that comment after a lawmaker asked why A-F grades were bad for school sites if they are acceptable for students.

During the study, school officials bemoaned the fact that parents believe an F grade means a school is failing, and called for lawmakers to replace the school report-card system with one that is not so easily understood by the public.

Jeanene Barnett, an education policy and research analyst for the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA), a lobbyist organization that represents school administrators, said CCOSA officials would like to eliminate the single, overall letter grade given to each school or do away with A-F school grades entirely and transition to a different system, such as one that only identifies the lowest-performing schools without evaluating the remainder.

State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, a former teacher who taught at “an F school my entire career,” suggested the A-F school grades should be eliminated entirely.

“An F universally means failure instead of growth or anything like that,” said Rosecrants, D-Norman.

Barnett touted New Mexico as a state that abandoned A-F school grades in 2021.

Recent data indicates that shift has not produced better outcomes in New Mexico schools, however. In October 2022, New Mexico Education reported that New Mexico “ranks dead last among the 50 states and Washington D.C. on all four tests” administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

During the study, officials even suggested that the transparency of A-F school grades harms business recruitment efforts.

Miller told lawmakers that officials from Panasonic asked the superintendent of Pryor about her school’s state report cards when the company was considering that area as a potential site for a new facility.

“When we talk about chambers of commerce and cities and how these … grades and labels affect the economic status of those communities, it’s a real thing, because you know Panasonic didn’t go to Pryor,” Miller said.

Pryor High School got a C on the most recent state report card while spending $16,938 per student, more than $6,000 per student above the state average. Pryor Middle School got a D while spending $12,954 per student, nearly $2,700 more per student than the state average.

The per-pupil funding at both Pryor High School and Pryor Middle School exceeds the tuition at most private schools in Oklahoma.

Officials did not suggest strategies to improve student outcomes at schools receiving low grades during the study.

False information presented by opponents of A-F school grades

In several instances, information presented during the study by critics of A-F school grades was apparently false.

Sandra Valentine, a consultant who works for Alpha Plus Educational Systems and appeared via a pre-taped interview, said A-F school grades are inflexible.

“We are put on a bell curve, every school together,” Valentine said.

State Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, echoed that claim.

“Five percent of the schools are always going to be As, and 5 percent of the schools will always be in failure,” Waldron said.

Under a bell-curve system, the number of A schools is equal to the number of F schools, the number of B schools is equal to the number of D schools, and the remainder are given a C.

But Michael Tamborski, program manager for accountability at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said a bell curve has been used only twice since A-F school grades were mandated in 2011. The bell curve was used in the first year the system was implemented to create a baseline, he said, and then used again post-COVID to re-establish a baseline because the system was suspended for a year during COVID.

The latest round of A-F school grades show that no bell curve was used to assign grades that year. Of the 1,568 school sites given a letter grade, there were nearly twice as many A schools as F schools with 8.7% of schools receiving an A and 4.5% receiving an F. Another 27.3% received a B compared to 22.9% that received a D. The remaining 36.4% received a C.

Other claims made by A-F critics also drew skepticism.

State Rep. Rhonda Baker, a former teacher who chairs the House Common Education Committee, noted “there was a little bit of contradictory information” between Valentine’s taped presentation and the presentation by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, and it wasn’t limited only to claims that the system always uses a bell curve to assign school grades.

Baker noted that Valentine’s claims about the calculation of “chronic absenteeism,” which is a factor in a school’s overall grade, did not align with Baker’s own experience as a teacher in public schools.

“This ‘chronic absenteeism’ definition, I mean I circled it. It says absences due to chronic medical illness are exempted,” said Baker, R-Yukon. “She said ‘long COVID’ would give you chronic absenteeism. She even talked about if you’re in middle school and you’re going to get your braces adjusted that that adds to that. I know in my school, it did not add to that. It was just one hour and you were back.”

State Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, noted that A-F school grades were adopted because they provided much more public clarity than what was provided by the prior school-rating system.

“One of the reasons we switched systems is because we had a system that didn’t mean anything,” Caldwell said. “You got a point value that nobody knew what it meant.”

And, he noted, parents generally appreciate the clarity provided by letter grades.

“Parents overwhelmingly want this information,” Caldwell said.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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