The Tony Bennett Flap: School Grades, Stakes, and Signals

A few days ago I urged people not to rush to judgment in the Christel House affair, and that remains my advice today. Even now, it’s not entirely clear what Tony Bennett and his staff did to raise the school’s grade, and whether they were careful (or not) to apply the same rules to schools in similar situations. Selectively reported emails are unlikely to provide a full or fair account.

What matters most, though, is how reformers react to the bright spotlight now on school-grading systems. To be sure, these haven’t exactly been out of view before; how we measure school success (or failure) has been a raging conversation in the policy community since before No Child Left Behind. Arne Duncan’s waivers were an admission that the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress approach was hardly infallible as a metric—and that states should have more leeway in designing measures going forward.

Yet we’ve never been good at explaining to the public that a school rating (whether A–F or anything else) is the sum of a multitude of judgments about what makes for successful (or failing) schools. For instance: How much should the attainment of a particular performance level (like “proficient” or “college ready”) count, versus students’ progress over the course of the year? Which subjects are included in the measure? Are they weighted equally? Should all students’ scores count the same, or should we put greater stress on those of the lowest-performing kids? What about high-performers? What role should the size of a school’s achievement gap play, and how should we measure that? Should the performance of students with cognitive disabilities count? Children who are new to the country and can’t yet speak (or read) English? What about graduation rates, or attendance data, or other indicators? And, quite relevant in this case: If a school spans the elementary, middle, and high school grades, should it get one grade or three?

There are no “right” answers to these questions—which is one reason the federal government should leave these decisions to the states. But it also implies that school grades might be more appropriately seen as “signals” to parents and taxpayers than as unassailable evidence that, for instance, a school deserves to be closed.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry first appeared as part of a forum published in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly. In light of the news of Tony Bennett’s resignation, Fordham asked several top education-policy analysts to explore what the resignation would mean for school accountability going forward.

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