May 2, 2013

In other states, letter grades drastically affected communities

Home values rose in top districts, poor schools lost support and the ratings got people's attention.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – States that have assigned letter grades to schools, as Maine's Department of Education has begun to do, have seen wide-ranging effects on everything from home values to community support for schools, say experts who have studied the issue.

The grades may also affect the educational quality of each school.

Although the data on Maine schools' report cards was publicly available previously, people will probably respond to it in a new way, now that it's summed up in a simple 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 study in 2004, Figlio found that school grades in Florida drove up home prices in places with top-rated schools.

Jennifer Sanchez, a real estate agent in the Phoenix area, has seen that phenomenon in her state. She sends parents to websites with information about individual school performance, and that generally dissuades them from even considering areas with low-rated schools.

One factor that may ease the impact of school grades on real estate in Arizona is school choice, such as charter schools and open enrollment. That means a student's school is not determined by address.

Many schools that get A or A-plus grades hang banners out front, 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 have had a real impact on parents' perceptions of schools and how satisfied they are with them.

A few years ago, the vast majority of New York City schools were getting A's or B's, so officials decided to cap the number of schools that could receive top grades. Some schools fell from A to C, or from B to D, even though their students' achievement stayed the same or even improved.

Parents' 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 school letter grades say their familiarity and simplicity make 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, at Northwestern University, has also found a correlation between school grades and community support. Community members tend to give more money to schools with high grades and withdraw support from fundraising at schools with low grades, he said.

A study that Figlio co-wrote in 2007 is one of the primary pieces of evidence that advocates for school report cards, such as Jeb Bush's Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, cite in saying the grades improve education.

Figlio and his co-authors found that schools' staffs respond to the grades, in varying ways. Some respond negatively, by cheating or otherwise trying to game the system, while others make concrete attempts to change by restructuring the school day or exploring alternative ways to group students by performance.

Figlio said Maine's grading system, which uses growth measures and proficiency rates, should keep schools from trying to game the system, because growth measures are harder to manipulate.

"If we are going to see a school grading system, I like something like what Maine's done," Figlio said.

Because the combination of looking at growth and proficiency rates means that there's some reward to having high proficiency, but on the other hand it's fairer to schools that serve less advantaged student bodies."

Figlio said school grading "doesn't revolutionize the way schools are doing business, it doesn't turn mediocre schools to outstanding schools, at least overnight. I'm still agnostic on the policy, in part because I see costs to it, but I do see these benefits as well."

School grading systems in other states often attach incentives or punishments, such as bonuses for schools with high grades or provisions to let the state take over schools with persistently low grades. Some states have offered vouchers or other school choice options to students at schools with low grades.

Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday that he would like to see schools and teachers rewarded financially for elevating students' growth.

LePage included a $3 million "school accountability" fund in his proposed two-year budget to help failing schools. It was rejected last month by the Legislature's Education Committee and is now before the budget-writing committee.

Jaryn Emhof, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said an A-to-F grading system can be effective without further rewards or sanctions from the state, particularly in stimulating community engagement to improve schools.

Emhof said other states, including Florida, started with the grading system and then added other reforms such as school choice.

"We would hope Gov. LePage and (Education) Commissioner (Stephen) Bowen will not stop at just implementing A-F and we don't think they will," she said.

Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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