Currently, your neighborhood school can be graded one of two ways: meeting standards or improvement required. That system opens up a whole list of questions: What expectations? Is our school just barely meeting them, or one of the top in the district or in the state? What needs improvement?
The other problem is there are no clear answers to any of those questions. That is exactly why we need an A-F grading system for our school campuses. While you may not know what “meeting standards” means, you know exactly what an A or B means — and you know exactly what an F means. Even the state’s Education Commissioner Michael Williams agrees with that statement, quoted in 2013 in the Senate Education Committee: “It’s a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too.”
I hear school superintendents talk all the time about the lack of parental involvement in schools. I would argue that nothing would get parents more involved in their child’s school than an A-F grading system, because, for the first time, parents would truly understand how their schools are doing. It would force schools to come up with an action plan to improve their grades and give parents new options to help their local schools become the best that they can be.
This kind of grading system also could be a tremendous catalyst for increased academic performance. The current Texas grading system is hard to understand, even by educators. While it may sound simple, the system is actually very complicated and can mask the true performance — or lack of performance — by our schools.
The first state to adopt such a system was Florida. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who championed this grading system, said the A-F system has made the public schools in Florida better because it rewards improvement, even small improvement.
Our current system is basically pass or fail. Our system allows schools to escape with mediocre performance hidden in the overly broad “meeting standards” grade. Whether the school is just barely meeting standards or near the top of the list, there is no incentive for improvement. Once you meet standards, the highest grade, why would you want to improve? That does nothing to make our overall education system better in the long run and hurts our children, trapping them in mediocre schools that have no reason to be anything but mediocre.
If Texas is going to maintain its competitive economic edge well into the future and increase the number of career- and college-ready high school graduates, we must insist on an effective way to grade our schools on whether our students are learning what they need to know to succeed in the workforce or college once they graduate.
Unless we are able to dramatically increase the percentage of students graduating postsecondary-ready, Texas will no longer be able to compete for the jobs necessary to maintain our strong business climate and economy. We will all suffer if that happens.
An A-F school grading system is not a magic bullet. It will not improve our schools overnight, but I believe it is a critical step that will lead us to a better education system in the long run. It is a step that Texas must take in order to remain competitive with the rest of the country and the world.
Texas has benefitted greatly from the expansion of high-tech and high-skills industries. Those industries have brought thousands of jobs to our state and to the Austin area in particular. Without a highly educated workforce to fill those jobs, those industries will go elsewhere and take their high paying jobs with them. That is not the kind of future any of us want for our children and their children.
Bill Hammond is CEO of the Texas Association of Business and lives in Austin.