May 2, 2013

School grades' simplicity broadens impact

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- When a state assigns letter grades to schools, it affects things such as home values and community support for schools.

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Erskine Academy students react happily to hearing the school received a grade B by the State Department of Education on Wednesday. From left are Taylor Bailey, Abigail Glidden and Jared Gartley.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Gov. Paul LePage, left, and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen unveiled the state's new A-F grading system on Wednesday at the Maine State Library. Gov. Paul LePage said the grades would make schools accountable.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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