Instead of fixing schools, why don’t we grade them? Then, Mitt Romney says, parents will be able to move their kids out of the bad schools and into the good ones. In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez and Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera had to love hearing this. 

The right answer for government is to say ‘How do we make the private sector become more efficient and more effective,’” Romney said late in last night’s debate. “How do we get schools to be more competitive? Let’s grade them. I propose we grade our schools, so parents know which schools are succeeding and failing so they can take their child to a school that’s being more successful.” 

Consider that seamless transition. Government should help private businesses, and schools should be more competitive. That statement should be Exhibit A for parents and educators fearful of the Republicans’ movement toward privatizing public education. 

We’ve covered here before why school grading, which overwhelmingly relies on students’ standardized test scores (“growth” still means test scores), is counterproductive to quality teaching. Too many external influences, like poverty, affect how well kids perform on their standardized tests, regardless of how smart they are. Grading means an increased emphasis on cognitive learning of subjects like math and history, while studies continually demonstrate that children become more effective learners when their teachers spend significant time with noncognitive skills like self-esteem, resourcefulness and creativity. 

School grading is also impossible to understand. Really, genuinely impossible to understand. As an example, consider the Santa Fe Public School board’s meeting this summer about the A-F school-grade system. SFPS director of assessment and accountability Lynn Vanderlinden told the board “that there were some parts of the formula, such as awarding bonus points to schools, she didn’t fully understand,” according to the Albuquerque Journal. 

Vanderlinden said her questions to the Public Education Department asking for clarification generally go unanswered,” the Journal reported. 

Over the summer, a nonpartisan group of scientists and mathematicians were asked by a group of legislators in New Mexico to study Skandera’s school grading system and try to replicate it. The group, the Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education, was unable to do so. Again, from the Journal: “The group also believes the system adds elements together that aren’t compatible, and that the formula’s sensitivity to small changes results in unreasonable grade changes from one year to the next.” 

The formula changed over the summer, though, so maybe it makes more sense now. Let’s ask the state’s superintendents. In an open letter to Skandera last month, the New Mexico Superintendents Council wrote “On August 30, 2012, you released a list of changes that PED made to the A-F school grading system. While we appreciate finally obtaining the list of PED changes, the council has expressed deep concern with the lack of communication regarding the changes implemented into the calculations of school grades without any notification to superintendents and districts. 

“The instructional leaders of New Mexico have been trying to explain to our communities and staff the meaning of the school grades, only to learn that they were operating from PED provided information that was no longer valid or accurate.” 

It’s fascinating that Mitt Romney is on board with a school-reform policy so many people are finding impossible to explain or understand. “Accountability” is the idea, school-grade supporters say, but then shouldn’t the implementers be accountable for conveying to people how this works? 

The conspiracy theory surrounding all this is that many government officials actually want schools to fail, so their operation can be handed over to private companies. The pot of public money that goes into public education is astronomical, and businesses want it. Romney says government should supplement business interests, and in the same breath he says schools should be graded. The two notions are intimately connected. 

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