Florida’s Intuitive Letter Grades Produce Results

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was a comprehensive, bipartisan response to a failing and inequitable public-education system, a system that held no one accountable for student learning, and as a result, consistently failed its most vulnerable charges. States were required to measure the academic achievement of all children, with schools accountable for results. Outcomes improved, particularly among minority and low-income students, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But progress has not come fast enough, in part because NCLB came with an unintended consequence. The law’s overly prescriptive approach created a perverse incentive for states to lower academic expectations in order to avoid federal sanctions.

Its successor, the similarly bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), moves to correct some of those flaws by giving states more autonomy to fashion their own accountability systems and intervention policies. As states navigate implementation, I encourage them to use their expanded authority to strengthen accountability rather than retreat from it. This is in their students’ interest, and their own self-interest. Look no further than research from Eric Hanushek, Jens Ruhose, and Ludger Woessmann about the strong correlation between achievement in a state’s classrooms and growth in a state’s economy to understand some of the compelling reasons to improve education (see “It Pays to Improve School Quality,” features, Summer 2016).

A successful school-accountability system contains three basic elements: It gauges education quality and progress by measuring data that accurately reflect student achievement; it disseminates the results to parents and the public in a simple and transparent manner; and it rewards and incentivizes success and provides interventions to support low-performing schools and reverse failure. It is informative and focused on criteria that clearly support student success.

Lessons from Florida

Make no mistake: retreating from accountability is the easier path. In Florida, where I served as governor from 1999 to 2007, we know this from experience. Dating back to the 1970s, our state leaders attempted a series of ineffective initiatives to turn around one of the worst public-education systems in the country. At one time, almost half our 4th graders did not qualify as even basic readers on NAEP.

A bold, new direction was required. And so in 1999, we overhauled our school system through accountability legislation that made student learning the focus of education. We adopted an accountability formula based on students’ academic performance, requiring schools to focus resources on elevating achievement. Our letter-grade system gave parents a ready tool to assess school quality and make informed choices for their children. And even as the statewide Florida Education Association vehemently opposed these reforms, our students went on to become national leaders in making progress on NAEP (see Figure 1).


That experience taught us that an accountability formula should reflect only objective measures of academic achievement. The focus should be on student performance on grade-level assessments in core subjects, and student growth on those assessments from year to year. At the high school level, other indicators such as four-year graduation rates and success in college- and career-ready coursework, including Advanced Placement, IB, or industry certification classes, should be added.

Data on inputs such as teacher training, disciplinary policies, attendance policies, and school resources may suggest important school-improvement strategies and should also be made available to parents. I don’t disagree with a “dashboard” approach—it can provide important information to parents and inform intervention strategies.

But such data should not be included in an accountability formula. The bottom line must be student achievement. Standardizing inputs into an accountability formula diverts attention from student achievement, by micromanaging how districts, principals, and teachers run their classrooms. It bogs them down and reduces their flexibility in developing strategies that might work best for their individual situations.

As such, an effective accountability system requires rigorous assessments that accurately measure students’ knowledge of state standards and preparedness for college or a career. Expectations for students and schools should be continuously evaluated and upgraded, with a realistic but constant raising of the bar.

In addition, teachers need to fully understand the goals and what is expected of them. This means state accountability systems must also be aligned to individual teacher’s classroom goals: Help all students meet proficient or higher performance; help all students make significant progress from wherever they were performing in the prior year; and pay laser-like attention to ensuring struggling students are on track to reach proficiency.

An effective formula includes both achievement and growth. This creates positive pressure for improvement, even in high-performing schools, and it recognizes the efforts of the extraordinary schools that have a disproportionate number of low-performing students but are making strong gains. The progress of the lowest-performing students should be included as well, regardless of what “subgroup” they’re in, or the size of that subgroup. This ensures they receive the support they need to bring them up to grade level.

Simple and Transparent Reporting

An effective accountability system also requires that parents have a clear and concise measure of school performance. They should not have to struggle through confusing mazes of charts and spreadsheets to find out if their children are in a good learning environment. To get there, we begin with a simple, comprehensive, actionable score that captures the overall success of a school in advancing academic achievement. The most intuitive approach for parents is grading schools on an A‒F scale.

School letter grades have a distinct advantage for educators as well: they are very effective at focusing educators on the goal of maximizing academic achievement. After the implementation of Florida’s letter-grade system, decades of failure were quickly reversed and our state became a national leader in advancing student achievement. Other states took notice and began implementing similar reforms, and today, there are currently 17 states using an A‒F grading scale.

An analysis of the eight states with multiple years of implementation of the A‒F grading system found they were making faster improvements on NAEP 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math tests than the nation as a whole. The analysis, by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), included Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Letter grades are especially helpful in identifying schools that are struggling. Failure is perpetuated when it is hidden. But you can’t hide from an “F.”

An “F” is not a punishment. It is a distress signal. States and districts can respond with any number of strategies, including more resources, instructional coaches, a change in leadership, and more effective teachers. And in Florida, those that received such a signal changed their school policies and practices in meaningful ways and made long-term improvements, according to an exhaustive five-year study by Cecilia Elena Rouse, Jane Hannaway, Dan Goldhaber, and David Figlio.

Schools that received a grade of “F” not only improved test scores the following year, but those improvements “remained for the longer term,” researchers wrote. “We also find that ‘F’-graded schools engaged in systematically different changes in instructional policies and practices as a consequence of school accountability pressure, and that these policy changes may explain a significant share of the test score improvements (in some subject areas) associated with ‘F’-grade receipt.”

Concerns about California

A grade is a snapshot of school effectiveness designed to encourage parents to learn more. This is where states can do much better than they are doing now, by making relevant information accessible through a well-designed school report card that clearly and concisely lays out the calculations used to arrive at the school’s letter grade.

ESSA calls on states to provide annual reports, which must include information such as disciplinary data, absenteeism, per-pupil spending, teacher evaluation results, or school surveys. Such a dashboard gives a more complete picture of a school, better preparing parents to ask questions of their child’s principal, teachers, or school board members. It also may encourage more parental involvement, and can help them identify schools that best meet their children’s needs. The challenge is to create accountability formulas and report cards that communicate these many data points clearly.

One way to impede and prevent accountability is to dilute the importance of academic achievement and cloud the data provided to parents. This is the path that California appears to be taking with its new accountability formula, which abandons a comprehensive, summative performance score in favor of ratings on nine different elements, many of which may or may not have much impact on student success. These include inputs such as parental involvement, school climate, whether instructional materials and school facilities are considered sufficient, and implementation of academic standards. A draft report card under consideration would use colored boxes to indicate school performance on these elements, an approach deemed “practically impossible” to understand by the Los Angeles Times in July 2016. “If you’re a parent trying to figure out whether one school in your district is better than another, well, there’s no clear way to do it.”

This is not transparency. It is a fog machine. Parents will be confronted with a mishmash of confusing and unprioritized data that lead to no conclusion. Principals will spend valuable time trying to comply with criteria that may have little bearing on how their students perform, and may or may not boost student achievement. Hamstringing them with state-dictated criteria distracts them from what should be their primary focus.

One also wonders how California plans to comprehensively identify its lowest-performing schools, as is required by the new federal law. The school grading systems identify schools with grades of “F” for comprehensive support. While these very low-performing schools may not have every indicator in the bottom 5 percent, it is obvious when looking at their data that these are the schools in need of the highest level of support.

Those supporting California’s approach mistakenly argue that using only academic indicators puts too much emphasis on test results. But whether a student will succeed after high school and move on to a meaningful career depends primarily on one thing: Is he or she academically prepared for college and a good career?

We still have far to go when it comes to transforming education in our country. But there is much to be learned from the student-centered systems enacted by Florida and similarly minded states. Strengthening and improving accountability systems have proven effective in achieving the results our students, parents, educators, and taxpayers deserve.

Jeb Bush is the 43rd governor of the state of Florida, serving from 1999 through 2007.

This is part of a forum on state accountability systems. For an alternate perspective, see “California’s Dashboard Data Will Guide Improvement,” by Heather J. Hough and Michael W. Kirst.

This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Bush, J., Hough, H.J., and Kirst, M.W. (2017). How Should States Design Their Accountability Systems? Education Next, 17(1), 54-62.

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