State Department of Education set to release school A-F letter grades

TEA pushing back on harmful and misleading labeling of public schools


The Tennessee Department of Education has made implementation of a long dormant state law requiring annual assignment of a single summative letter grade a top priority this school year.


The law, which was opposed by TEA, was approved by the General Assembly in 2016 but has never gone into effect due to a series of state testing failures followed by the COVID pandemic. Now the department of education is moving swiftly to implement the letter grades this year following a public comment period and a series of 10 public town halls designed to gather public feedback concerning the design of a model to produce letter grades for schools.


Nearly 300 organizations and citizens submitted written feedback and numerous educators spoke at town halls. A consistent theme voiced in both written and public comments was concern over how the letter grade would be determined and whether it is possible to do so in a fair and equitable manner that accounts for disparities in resources available to schools.


TEA submitted extensive written commentary outlining concerns with the implementation while also noting that numerous states that had previously implemented A-F school grading systems are now moving away from the practice. Utah became one of the most recent states to repeal the system, doing so unanimously in both chambers of their state legislature, including a sponsor of the original bill.


TEA also pointed out in the written comments that the practice of assigning a single summative letter grade to describe school performance has failed to produce any evidence of academic improvement and may do the opposite by stigmatizing schools receiving lower grades. This can create a negative incentive for investment and damage the school’s relationship with the community and its own staff.


There is also inevitable confusion that will be caused by the letter grades and how they’re calculated. Proponents of the concept argue it increases transparency and gives parents a simple, concise way of judging the academic performance of their child’s school. The way the model is created can produce dramatically different results, so it is difficult to make the argument that it’s easily understood when changes in the weights in the model can cause schools to go from an A school to a D school.


If, for example, achievement is the primary factor in determining school letter grades, then the system will produce what essentially amounts to a heat map for concentrated poverty. Substantially weighting growth and other factors such as subgroup performance can provide more nuance but might also pull down letter grades of schools that already have high achievement and little room for significant growth.


“These letter grades don’t help students, and they don’t provide clear and concise information that is useful to parents,” said TEA President Tanya Coats, who serves on one of the working groups tasked with making final recommendations on how the grades will be built. “What goes into determining these grades is a statement of priority, and TEA is in the room to advocate for all students and to encourage the inclusion of much more nuanced information.”


The next steps of implementation are underway with the formation of working groups, whose participants include TEA President Coats and other TEA members, that are charged with reviewing public comments and making final decisions on the model composition. The final working group meeting is Friday, Oct. 20, after which letter grades can be assigned and released in the coming weeks based on school data from last year. TEA has major concerns about retroactively implementing a system using data derived before school systems even knew what the model would be emphasizing. Districts and educators deserve to be provided with time to understand the new system, what it emphasizes, and how it differs from the accountability system in effect and approved by the federal government.


Furthermore, if data is to be released retroactively, then the department should release two letter grades: one from the system originally designed after passage of the law, and one from the new working group, so that the public might understand how the two differ and what they emphasize.


“We don’t believe parents need to have it watered down for them,” continued Coats. “One letter could never capture all of the work happening inside a school, and we believe over-simplifying something so complex benefits no one.”


TEA will be providing more information on what educators and parents can expect as decisions are finalized and a timeline is established for the release of the letter grades as part of this year’s release of academic performance data later this semester.