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August 5, 2013

A to F grading system for schools doesn’t work

INDIANAPOLIS — Last spring, a small public elementary school in the small city of Goshen, Ind., won a big award from the private Milken Foundation: It was named one of the four best schools in the nation for teaching excellence.

I thought the recognition was newsworthy so I wrote about it. Unlike elementary schools in affluent communities that are used to winning accolades, West Goshen Elementary School has a student population that few school administrators would envy: Almost 80 percent of its students come from poverty-stricken families and many of them are the children of Hispanic immigrants who speak little English. 

West Goshen earned the award by embracing many of reforms put into place by Indiana’s former state schools chief Tony Bennett, who is now under a shadow of scandal. It focused resources on boosting student test scores, provided intense remediation for students falling behind, adopted a teacher-mentoring program modeled by other schools, and recruited community volunteers to provide tutoring, support and encouragement to children so easily discouraged by failure. 

In talking to school principal Alan Metcalfe, I could hear urgency in his voice. He was on a mission to raise the reading levels of his third-graders because he knew the odds for students who are poor readers and who live in poverty are grim: They’re six times at greater risk of dropping out. 

Yet when West Goshen Elementary School was graded by the state, under the nearly impossible to understand A-F grading system that Bennett implemented at the direction of the State Board of Education, the school got a D. 

And that is what’s really wrong with the state’s complicated school grading system. Parents, teachers and communities leaders in Goshen knew that West Goshen wasn’t a school on the brink of failure. 

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