chalkboard with grade f
What Should We Do with the D and F Letter Grade Schools? 

May 17, 2022

By John Huppenthal |

In 2008, I introduced and passed legislation to grade schools in Arizona on the A through F letter grading system. The system was to be based on the test scores and academic gains of students. 

If I were king, I would abolish the system which I established. I believe that it has inhibited innovation, damaged great schools, and shifted the focus in education away from the critical areas most fruitful for getting better outcomes in Arizona.

Letter grading, in part, has resulted in Arizona not achieving the full dividend we might have received from our tremendously advanced school choice environment. We are doing very well, but we should have done even better. 

These detrimental effects particularly affect D and F rated schools. 

I’ve worked inside such schools daily as a volunteer since leaving as Superintendent in 2014, so I have been able to directly observe the effects. Tremendously skilled and dedicated principals and teachers apply to work in such schools because they have a passion for the students. Then, a few years later, they are “all burned out”—as one father described his daughter, a teacher, during a recent fundraiser. These schools burn through principals and teachers at a horrifying rate with teachers, particularly excellent ones, leaving for more satisfying work environments. 

Certainly, such schools have always been high pressure environments, but the letter grading just increases the pressure, already unhealthy, to an absolutely toxic level. 

As Superintendent of Public Instruction, I had the ultimate test score database: every student’s testing results for six consecutive years. I could tell you the academic gains of Basis students when they were in Basis schools and when they were in other schools. Bottom line? The academic scale score gains of the top schools were 20% higher than the academic gains of the D and F schools. That’s all. That’s it. 

Being a volunteer as former Superintendent, I was immune to all that pressure. I ran my math class exactly the way I wanted to run it. When the thought police showed up and demanded to know if I was teaching to the standards, I assured them absolutely. The students who didn’t know how to count were counting. The students who didn’t know how to add were adding. The students who didn’t know how to multiply were multiplying. They were all on their way toward the fractions, decimal, and proportion standards of fourth grade. They weren’t there yet because none of my fourth-grade students had achieved third grade standards, and few had achieved second grade standards. But we were on our way. 

My scale score gains were double the statewide average. But not the best. One other teacher bested me by a point, a particularly inspirational sixth grade teacher. One year, one class in a school with 27 classes was not enough to rescue the school’s letter grade. 

That teacher still haunts me. He should have received great accolades for his accomplishment. He should have been featured on TV. His students loved him. He was saving students from jail. He was saving students from drug addiction. He was saving students from prison. Instead, he soon left the school. 

This year, I am working in kindergarten. Why? Because as I did my work, I came to understand that the initial years in school are, by far, the most critical years. In these years, students establish their personal identity, their habits, and their foundational skills.

How does this relate to letter grading? Letter grades can only take into account academic gains from fourth grade to eighth grade. Our first test is at the end of third grade, establishing the baseline for measuring academic gains in fourth grade. 

The academic gains from fourth grade to eighth grade are less than the academic gains from the start of kindergarten to the end of third grade. 

So, the entire letter grade system is based on the least important half of the pie. As a result, the attention of the entire system is shifted away from where it should be focused—the early years. 

Education culture is the foundation of our entire society. How we think, how we interact. Our degree of interconnectedness. We can do better. We should be the state the goes full free market. Get rid of letter grades. Instead publish customer satisfaction scores. And let’s find out what percentage of parents believe their child is getting an INCREDIBLY GREAT education when given a choice between that and very good, good, or poor.

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