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NEPC Analysis Gives a Failing Grade to School Report Cards

Statewide school accountability systems that measure school performance on an
A-F scale are invalid, inaccurate, and undemocratic, a new policy brief concludes


William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Kenneth R. Howe, (303) 492-7229,

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BOULDER, CO (January 26, 2015) – Sixteen states purport to measure how effective schools are by assigning “report cards” that grade individual public schools on a scale of “A” to “F”.

Such systems deserve a failing grade, according to a new policy brief published today by the National Education Policy Center. The authors of the brief set forth three overarching reasons for this failure: The report card systems don’t validly measure school quality; they don’t fulfill their stated policy objective; and they don’t contribute to two fundamental goals of public education. These two goals are to educate students for democratic citizenship, and to incorporate parents and community members in the democratic deliberation about their public schools’ policies.

Why School Report Cards Merit a Failing Grade was written by Kenneth R. Howe and Kevin Murray. Howe is a professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder, where the National Education Policy Center is housed. Murray is a Ph.D. candidate at CU Boulder.

Howe and Murray explain that the adoption of these grading systems is not based on research. They point out substantial problems with the school report card approach. “A single grade is too sweeping to synthesize a broad array of evaluation criteria—achievement, attendance, dropout rates, the offering of advanced classes, and more,” says Howe. “The categorical A-F scale is crude and imprecise, so that schools with the same grade, instead of being equivalent to each other, could differ substantially.” Not surprisingly, then, Howe and Murray find “little credible research on whether letter grades validly measure and express school quality.”

Murray adds that the A-F school grade system also “fails as a policy instrument because, while it may provide a superficially clear and simple measurement, there is no confidence that the measurement is an accurate measure of school performance, and indeed it can produce patently invalid representations of school quality.”

Instead of empowering people – parents and citizens – to join in the larger community decision-making process about education, the grades “are more likely to alienate parents from democratic participation in the education of their children,” Howe and Murray write in their policy brief. And because these systems ignore the central factors in school performance – resources available to schools, families and communities – they are rendered “ill-suited to drive school improvement.”

Finally, school report cards never measure educational outcomes central to fostering an effective citizenry in a democracy. They are, therefore, silent on whether the schools they purport to evaluate fulfill their prime objective of preparing students for citizenship in a democracy.

Howe and Murray offer a set of recommendations to eliminate single-grade systems, develop formats that use multiple indicators to more accurately profile school performance, and enlist assessment and evaluation experts in the design of school accountability systems, building on the recent work of researchers in Oklahoma and adding two key recommendations of their own: first enable democratic deliberation over the many purposes of schooling before establishing the criteria against which schools are to be assessed; then ensure that all accountability systems “promote, rather than neglect or inhibit, the formation of democratic character – which must be consciously cultivated.”

Find Why School Report Cards Merit a Failing Grade, by Kenneth R. Howe and Kevin Murray, on the NEPC website at:


The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on the NEPC, please visit

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (