Don’t Count on Grading, Ranking Educational Quality

Having been a long-time advocate for and practitioner of de-testing and de-grading the classroom, I also reject the relentless obsession of mainstream media to grade and rank educational quality among states as well as internationally (see Bracey and Kohn).

As Kohn recognizes: “Beliefs that are debatable or even patently false may be repeated so often that at some point they come to be accepted as fact.”

And thus, with the monotonous regularity and mechanical lack of imagination of a dripping faucet, Education Week once again trumpets Quality Counts.

Like a college course no one wants to register for, Quality Counts 2017 gives the nation a C while no state makes an A or an F.

The appeal of all this much ado about nothing includes:

  • The U.S. has a perverse obsession with quantification that is contradicted by a people who are equally resistant to science and expertise.
  • People love the overly simplistic use of charts and interactive maps.
  • These grades and rankings always confirm the enduring narrative that public schools are failing.

However, the real problem is not how states and the nation rank, but that we persist at the grading and ranking as if that process reveals something of importance (it doesn’t) or as if that process somehow is curative (it isn’t).

How, then, does grading and ranking educational quality fail us?

  • As with regularly changing standards and high-stakes testing as part of accountability, grading and ranking educational quality is part of the larger failure of imagination, a belief in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Media have been grading and ranking for decades, and the narrative of failing schools has continued; in other words, this process has no positive impact on education reform — but it feeds a media and social need to bash public schooling.
  • Anything can be quantified and ranked, and the statistics needed to quantify and rank are necessarily what drive both; thus, A-F grades and then extending the measurements so that ranking is possible become goals of the process that often distort the message of that process. For a simple analogy, in the 400-meter dash at the Olympics, the event creates finishers ranked 1–10; however, all of them are world-class and the distinction among them is minuscule, for all practical purposes irrelevant except for the need to declare winners and losers.
  • Grades and rankings of all kinds in education focus almost entirely on observable and measurable outcomes, glossing over or ignoring powerful influences on measurable student outcomes. Decades of research show that out-of-school factors account for 60–80+% of those measurable outcomes; and thus, outcome-based data of educational quality are more likely a reflection of social conditions than school-based quality. The inherent problem with using test scores, for example, for ranking and determining educational quality has been disputed by the College Board for years (see page 13).
  • Grades and rankings feed into a competition model as well as deficit ideology. These are both harmful in education because collaboration is more effective than competition and because our focus is on flaws (deficits) that we associate primarily with schools, teachers, and students, perpetuating a “blame the victim” mentality that ignores (as noted above) factors beyond the control of schools, teachers, and students (such as poverty, racism, sexism, etc., — all of which significantly impact measurable learning outcomes).
  • And finally, grading and ranking fail because of a common misunderstanding about statistical facts as they contradict political and public expectations: large populations of humans (90% of students attend public schools) will always have a range of measurable outcomes (height, 40-yard dash times, test scores) — although also misunderstood, think the bell-shaped curve — which will appear to be a “failure” when posed against the political/public call for 100% proficiency by students. In other words, the U.S. demands that everyone be above average and then is disappointed when statistics show a range of human outcomes.

Since the mid-1800s, fueled by the Catholic church’s market fears, there has existed a media, political, and public obsession with bashing public education.

In this era of fake news and post-truth debate, as I have noted over and over, mainstream media are as culpable — if not exactly the same — as fake news and click-bait because practices such as Quality Counts by EdWeek are lazy and misleading, enduring, as Kohn noted, mostly because it is something media have always done and because these rankings feed into confirmation bias.

If quality counts, beating the grades-and-rankings drums is a sure way to insure that it will never be obtained.

If truth matters, a first step in that direction would include resisting the failed practice of grading and ranking educational quality.