Thursday, February 19, 2015

Random thoughts on the uselessness of grading schools through polls

Over the past decade, grading public school performance has been all the rage with the debate primarily focused on how to communicate the results of such to parents and the general public.

Grading of schools isn't new by any means. For more than forty-five years, Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup have been polling the general public and asking them to grade their local schools as well as public schools in general.

Last week, Michigan Radio and Public Sector Consultants joined forces in conducting yet another poll asking six hundred likely voters what letter grade they give to their local schools as well as the Michigan schools in general. As is typically done in most polls, the grade was based on the same grading system most adults experienced while they were in school: A, B, C, D or F.

This same system is being advocated by pseudo-education reformers in our state House and Senate supported by anti-public school organizations and policy think tanks. Their argument is based on a belief that it provides a simpler evaluation system that will be understood by parents and other adults instead of more complex methods (i.e., color-coding, etc). In other words, they have little faith in the ability of the average parent to understand how their school is fairing unless the state uses a grading system that takes them back to their childhood.

The problem with any argument in favor of a traditional grading system for schools, whether by parents in polls or the state using tests that may or may not accurately measure the full extent of learning, is that we know for a fact as its used within schools to evaluate student performance, grading is very subjective and could represent various levels of actual achievement despite being assigned the same grade.

Take the polling of Michigan's likely voters as mentioned above. How valid is my assignment of a grade of B for my local schools in comparison to your assignment of an A for yours? There are no common standards for what constitutes and A or a B, or C-D-F for that matter. It's based solely on our perceptions as filtered by our distant and recent past experiences. It has no basis in reality except that which exists in our own minds. Any experience I've had, any organization I belong to, any political theory I lean towards, or any recent radio talk show host I listened to can and does alter my filters and change my perceptions. In fact, the time of day you ask me, the events that are occurring around me at that time, or my general emotional state will effect what grade I ultimately assign. But in the end, it really doesn't matter what grade it is because you and I are likely never going to actually agree on a specific grade if we have no common understanding of what we are measuring the school against.

And what about the respondent to the survey who never, ever experience earning an A or a B in their life? Or the individual who never received a D or an F? Neither really knows from personal experience what level of performance produces such a grade so how will they accurately grade schools across the state? They don't know what those grades look like.

In the end, it's my belief that polls like these are useless other than to understand the public perception at the moment. They have no value in actually assessing the performance of the school and for the most part are used primarily to attract readers and support the business model of the publication. They make for some useful water cooler conversation but most likely just support the many myths and misconceptions advocated by either side of the debate.

We'd all be better off without them.