Friday, June 25, 2010

Make grades meaningful

The Editors
South Bend Tribune

Dislike for a plan to label schools with single letter grades should not be mistaken for dislike of clarity and accountability. We hope Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett realizes that.

Bennett is right to defend clarity and accountability. We join him in doing so. Where we disagree with the superintendent is in how he would report success and failure in schools.

For the purposes of this discussion, schools aren't buildings. They are people: children, teachers and administrators. All perform at different levels and with varying degrees of competency. Students are graded for their work. Bennett thinks teachers and administrators should be graded, too, and that their grade should take the form of a letter, A through F, that reflects the performance of their students. The letter would be applied to the school.

While we have no objection to grading educators, to label a school with a single symbol of success or failure is wrong. Simple though the idea is, it doesn't even merit points for clarity. That's because a single letter grade, based on student ISTEP scores, is too general to impart much useful information.

We hope the Indiana State Board of Education listened carefully to Mishawaka school board President Larry Stillson on June 16. He was one of two people representing the Indiana School Boards Association to the state board. Stillson was there not only to tell the trustees what's wrong with Bennett's plan, but to offer a better idea.

The school board president proposes that schools receive multiple grades in several areas, rather than be painted with a single broad ISTEP-based stroke. Not only would that impart useful information to anyone honestly trying to understand a school's strengths and weaknesses, but it would spare schools (and communities) glaring, hurtful and mostly meaningless labels.

If the state board is bent on finding a simple answer, it might not like Stillson's idea. To devise a plan for grading schools on a broad spectrum could be complicated. It would take some effort. But it would be effort well spent, not effort that would do more harm than good.

My comment:

Today's editorial is right on the mark. Tony Bennett's tenure has been characterized by shifting all responsibility away from his department and by making extremely complicated problems appear to have simple solutions.

I also appreciate the Tribune pointing out someone with a viable (in this case, better) alternative. We should all be prepared to do so when opposing a proposal or action. But it's good to notice when people actually do it. Hopefully, it will encourage them to continue doing so.

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