Christine CookeUsing a letter grade to communicate school performance is simple. That’s the power of it.

Accountability to the public is only effective when information is clear and easy to understand. And grading schools A-F makes performance understandable to the public, which is the funder and consumer of the state education system.  So if the stewards of the public education system are accountable to anyone, it’s the public.

Which is why we ought to be thoughtful about the changes proposed in HB 198 – Education Accountability Amendments.

This new legislation would replace the A-F letter grading with five ambiguous descriptors: “exemplary,” “commendable,” “typical,” “developing” and “critical needs.” Proponents of this change say that letter grades are unnecessarily harsh and that they fail to reveal the nuances of what’s really happening in schools.

As members of the Utah Senate consider this bill, they would be prudent to remember three things about our accountability system: (1) It should be designed with an eye toward parents making educational choices, (2) it can include both letter grades and a dashboard with more detailed information – these ideas are compatible – and (3) it should shine a bright light on schools that need additional support from state leaders.

Because the U.S. Constitution and Utah Code protect a parent’s right to oversee their child’s education, any public education accountability system should be geared toward parents and less concerned with anything else – including the pressure that school officials might feel from a clear and transparent label.

Parents and taxpayers deserve information about education – and, let’s be honest, we all prefer easy-to-understand data. That’s why applications like Yelp offer consumers restaurant, salon and dentist rankings of up to five stars. That’s also why the private sector, through websites like Great Schools, provides parents with school ratings on a 10-point scale. But HB 198 would depart from the simple metrics that are usually offered to consumers. What does a “typical” school look like anyway? Are most schools typically good or bad, effective or not effective?

Letter grades also correlate with improvements, perhaps because of the clarity they offer the public and policymakers. On average, states with A-F school letter grades have performed better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than states without letter grades. Six of 10 states implementing A-F school grading made greater improvements in NAEP Math Grade 4 than non-A-F states. And eight of 10 states with A-F school grading and multiple years of NAEP data outpaced the National Public improvement in Grade 4 Reading. Clear ratings aren’t meant to be harsh; they’re just meant to have real meaning for parents and the public and shine a light on schools that might need additional support from state leaders.

Further, we don’t need to choose between letter grades and a dashboard of more detailed information – we should offer the public both. This past year during the moratorium on the school letter grades, the public was still able to access a dashboard with a range of information about individual schools, including graduation rates, ACT test scores, the growth of academic performance of students in the lower quartile of academic achievement, the progress of English language learners, the numbers of students taking advanced courses and more. These detailed metrics alongside letter grading will create robust transparency for the public and a powerful tool for parents.

To the education practitioners who felt like the dashboard this past year was a breath of fresh air, we can all understand why. The student achievement and growth found in individual schools reveal the truly impressive educators, which should absolutely be available for the public to see as well. Certainly, schools that serve underserved students or those that qualify as Title I schools have a different story to tell than others. Those stories are in the details. For the same reasons we should offer parents a simple metric like an A-F school grade, we should offer parents the nuances of a dashboard, and then let members of the public make informed decisions for themselves.

For the upcoming discussion around school grading, let’s keep what’s already a proven system for transparency and improve upon it, not dilute it.

Christine Cooke is education policy director at Sutherland Institute. Tom Greene is senior regional legislative director at ExcelinEd in Action.