AUGUSTA — When a state assigns letter grades to schools, it affects things such as home values and community support for schools.
The grades also might help improve educational quality.
Thirteen other states grade schools on an A-to-F scale, and some others issue report cards using other labels such as “meets expectations.” Maine is the first New England state to adopt letter grades.
Although the information appearing on Maine schools’ report cards has been publicly available, people probably will respond to it in a new way now that it’s summed up in a letter grade, said David Figlio, professor of economics and of education and social policy at Northwestern University.
“In the case of Florida, for example, there was lots of information that was already kind of percolating out there about school quality,” he said. “But when the state came in and summed it up in an easy-to-digest letter grade, people paid attention to it.”
In a 2004 study, Figlio found that school grades in Florida drove up home prices in neighborhoods with top-rated schools.
That tracks with the experience of Phoenix-area real estate agent Jennifer Sanchez. She sends parents to websites with information about school performance, and that generally dissuades them from even considering areas with low-rated schools.
One factor that may lessen the effect of school grades on real estate in Arizona is the availability of school choice options, such as charter schools and open enrollment, that mean a student’s school is not determined by address.
Many schools with an A or an A-plus hang banners out front to boast of their grades, Sanchez said.
“In one aspect, it creates healthy competition among schools and principals,” she said. “They want to achieve more and they want their state standardized testing to be high to get those ratings.”
Rebecca Jacobsen, an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, found that New York City’s letter grades affect parent perceptions of, and satisfaction with, schools.
A few years ago, the vast majority of New York City schools were receiving A’s or B’s, so officials decided to cap the number of schools that could receive top grades. Some schools fell from an A to a C, or from a B to a D, even though student achievement had stayed the same or even improved.
Parent satisfaction in those communities declined, Jacobsen found, and it didn’t necessarily rise when a school’s grade later improved.
“It seems that it’s easier to erode people’s satisfaction with the school than it is to build it,” she said. “When you implement these new programs, you can sometimes put a shock into the system, and it’s not so easy to build up people’s confidence and faith in the system again if it’s been shaken.”
Advocates for giving schools letter grades say their familiarity and simplicity is what makes them work, but Jacobsen said that also makes them dangerous.
“Everyone thinks they know what an A or a B or a C means, and it can obscure that effort to find out what does it mean,” she said.
Figlio also has found a relationship between school grades and community support. Community members tend to give more money to schools with high grades, while withdrawing support from fundraising at schools with low grades, he said.
A 2007 study that Figlio co-wrote is one of the primary pieces of evidence for claims by report-card advocates, such as Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, that giving letter grades to schools improves education.
Figlio and his co-authors found that school staff members respond to the grades. Some react negatively, by cheating or otherwise trying to game the system.
Other schools make attempts at real change, by restructuring the school day or exploring alternative ways to group students by performance.
Figlio said Maine’s use of growth measures as well as proficiency rates should help because growth measures are harder for school staffs to manipulate.
“If we are going to see a school grading system, I like something like what Maine’s done,” Figlio said, “because the combination of looking and growth and proficiency rates means that there’s some reward to having high proficiency; but on the other hand, it’s fairer to schools that serve less advantaged student bodies.”
The instructional changes that schools make in response to grading systems do seem to improve education, at least when it comes to the subjects that are tested, usually in mathematics and reading. Students in F-rated schools progressed faster than peers in schools with higher grades.
Less certain is what’s happening with student knowledge of the humanities or the arts, or skills such as critical thinking.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Figlio said. “It doesn’t revolutionize the way schools are doing business. It doesn’t turn mediocre schools to outstanding schools, at least overnight. I’m still agnostic on the policy, in part because I see costs to it, but I do see these benefits as well.”
School grading systems in other states often have incentives or punishments attached, such as paying bonuses at schools with high grades or allowing the state to take over schools with persistently low grades. Some states also offer vouchers or other school-choice options to students at schools with low grades.
LePage said Wednesday that he’d like to see schools and teachers rewarded financially for elevating student growth.
LePage included a $3 million “school accountability” fund in his proposed biennial budget to help schools that are failing, but it was rejected last month by the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and is now before the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
Jaryn Emhof, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said an A-to-F grading system can be effective without further rewards or sanctions from the state, particularly in stimulating community engagement to improve schools.
Emhof said other states, including Florida, started with the grading system, then added other reforms such as school choice.
“We would hope Governor LePage and Commissioner (Stephen) Bowen will not stop at just implementing A-F and don’t think they will,” she said. “Governor LePage has made improving the quality of education a priority.”
Susan McMillan — 621-5645