How helpful are “state grade” reports really?

National Education Policy CenterThe Think Twice Think Tank charges that “state grades” reports are mainly helpful to understand the policy agenda of those creating the grades, not as a means to understand the policies of state education departments.

The Think Twice think tank review project, part of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, asserts that while the grades may be generally reflective of the particular policy item about which they are concerned, these grades are predictable based on the agenda of the organization creating the grades. Because of this fact and their very general nature, these grades act as an attractive eye-catcher in the media more than a helpful tool for those involved in policy-making.

The Think Twice Think Tank was responding specifically to the StudentsFirst 2013 State Policy Report Card, which this blog wrote about recently.

Furthermore, when each state grade is analyzed for the StudentsFirst report, every state but three received an A or a B in some category, and every state received at least one D or F in some category.

Here is NEPC’s explanation:

More interesting than the biases of the genre is the broader discourse of “grading” states: the issuing of report cards has become a tool for satisfying key constituencies. Each report garners attention during a few news cycles, satisfying organization funders, and on occasion is part of what drives policy change where the focus is narrow (such as the Fordham Institute’s focus on science curriculum standards, especially in its handing out Fs for anti-evolution standards). But the more reports that appear, the more the news cycle dilutes the impact of any one such report and the more that state policymakers and advocates might be able to cherry-pick grades for their own purposes. The release of “grading” reports shortly before the start of many legislative sessions highlights the potential use of the grades as a way to shape current policy debate. Whether any individual attempt to grade states contributes to serious policy discussion is doubtful when a report issued the first week of January is followed by several other attempts to “grade the states” before the end of the month.

An illustration of this dynamic appears in the table below, which identifies the highest and lowest grade received by each state and the District of Columbia over several cycles of report cards from a number of organizations. The range of grades received by each state is partly due to the variety of policies examined, but also a reflection of the values and interests of sponsoring organizations.

The short-term publicity advantage of the state “grade” as a news hook is diluted every time that an additional organization uses the tactic of applying grades to states. Regardless of the publicity garnered by an individual report, the dynamic is tilted towards increasing dilution and gamesmanship. In the name of rigor, “grading the states” reports have become the fodder by which most states can claim a good grade in something while others can claim that almost all states fail at something else.

Here is the table that corresponds to this discussion: state grades

For more information, please visit this website: