Editorial: Dashboard offers deeper understanding of schools than letter grade


The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

Transparency ought to be the hallmark of an effective democracy. Allowing citizens to access data painting a clearer picture of an institution is the best way for them to judge effectiveness.

Last month, the state’s elementary and secondary schools were required to offer public access to the Indiana Department of Education’s school performance dashboard, a more intellectually honest assessment of school performance than the infantilizing A to F grading system it replaced.

The new assessment — Indiana Graduates Prepared to Succeed — is more comprehensive in its measures than the old system, which relied heavily on flawed tests such as ISTEP+ and ILEARN.

High-stakes testing was never an accurate indicator of success for either children or schools, much less a guide as to what some children and schools needed to catch up. This was particularly true when comparing many urban and rural districts to their relatively wealthier suburban counterparts.

Regarding education, it is unwise to concentrate on a single data point, considering the many variables administrators and public health specialists have to navigate to guide the 1.2 million students enrolled in Indiana schools.

Despite the complexity, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, still believes letter grades should play a role in measuring school performance.

“I would suggest that parents understand A-to-F much clearer,” he told Indianapolis’ WHTR-TV in October. “It’s much clearer to them than going to a dashboard and trying to dive down and see exactly what’s going on. … So you might get an ‘A’ for achievement gap, a measure for how you do on ILEARN, attendance, parent engagement.”

The distillation of data to a letter grade might make it easier to understand, much in the same way that telling someone “Oxygen is good for the body” would make it easier to comprehend why the chemical element is vital to the cardiovascular system. But oversimplification, at least in the case of education, frequently fails to explain why a school or district is thriving or languishing.

The other problem with assigning letter grades is that it fails to distinguish between evaluation and assessment. Stanford University senior lecturer Denise Pope made this distinction in describing how to measure student achievement in a May 2023 story for Harvard Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Grades are not the same as assessments.

“Assessment is feedback so that students can learn,” said Pope, who works with schools to identify problems and implement education policies. “It’s helping them see where they are and helping them move toward a point of greater understanding or mastery. Grading doesn’t always do that, but assessment should.”

Extrapolating Pope’s nuanced and sensible definition, condensing a school’s performance to a grade is a superficial act that does not allow a community to understand better what needs to be done to improve.

For example, there’s enough longitudinal data to suggest that food insecurity can hurt a child’s learning outcomes. In comparing a school with 80% free and reduced-price lunch — a marker of the number of children in poverty — with a low level of free and reduced lunch participants, how is the socioeconomic disparity weighted in grading? And how does that lead to a path of resolving the underlying problem?

Like the children they serve, schools and districts are complex ecosystems that need to be evaluated and understood in their totality if progress is to be made in achieving their crucial purpose. One-dimensional letter grades may be more familiar, but don’t offer the promise of progress our children and community deserve.