A-F School Grading

Promoting Transparency and Establishing Effective Incentives for Schools

Federal law requires all states to publicly report school performance information. Unfortunately, most states use vague labels that are difficult to understand and require an explanation, such as “satisfactory” or “making progress.” A-F school grading systems, on the other hand, embrace transparency to recognize success and expose failure in a way everyone can understand.  

A-F school grading has been a popular and effective accountability tool in states for decades. The rigorous model uses sophisticated, valid and reliable indicators based on student learning outcomes and focused on the performance of the lowest achieving students in each school. Just as importantly, these indicators are aggregated into a rigorous A-F grading scale. The easy-to-understand A-F ratings are crucial for promoting transparency and establishing effective incentives for schools.  

Elements of a Rigorous School Grading System

ExcelinEd promotes an A-F school grading policy that measures what matters: overall student performance and progress, with extra focus on struggling students, graduation rates and college and career readiness. School grading works by holding all schools to the same high expectations and clearly communicating the results to parents.

Use clear and transparent descriptors of A, B, C, D and F.

Include objective, concise student learning outcome measures.

Balance measures of student performance and progress.

Calculate student progress toward grade level and advanced achievement.

Focus attention on the progress of the lowest performing students in each school.

Report results in a timely manner as close to the end of the school year as possible.

Communicate clearly to parents.

Establish rigorous criteria, with automatic increases, to earn A, B, C, D or F grades.

Use grades to identify schools for recognition, intervention and support.

“Utah families deserve accountability that shines a light on how schools are performing. That is why a school’s letter grade measures how the school is helping every student achieve proficiency and gains in learning. Utah leaders are to be commended for their commitment to transparent school grades that better inform and empower parents.” 

Robyn Bagley

Board Chair, Parents for Choice in Education

“Public education systems should always provide the highest level of transparency to parents as possible. Alabama’s A-F system ensures parents understand how their child’s school performs and promotes accountability within the school to meet high educational outcomes.” 

Terri Collins

Representative for Alabama

How & Why It Works

Advantages of a School Grading System

1. Ensures Schools are Striving for Excellence, Not Settling for Complacency

A-F school grading creates a system-wide focus on school effectiveness because administrators, educators and parents understand A-F grades. No one is satisfied with a C grade or even a B grade. In the A-F states across the country, stakeholders strive for excellence in a way you don’t see with fuzzy descriptors like “satisfactory” or “performing.” Grading schools on a scale of A-F produces a sense of urgency to ensure our schools are meeting the needs of every student.

Researchers at the Manhattan Institute found positive, meaningful impacts continued six years after A-F was first adopted in NYC, but those ceased after A-F was repealed. The decision to stop reporting A-F summary letter grades removed an instrument that had led to positive changes at NYC’s lowest-performing schools. Schools that would have earned an F in fall 2014—the first year of the system without A-F—showed no improvement relative to schools that would have earned higher grades.

Schools facing accountability pressure changed their instructional practices in meaningful ways, which explained some of the test score gains in Florida’s school grading system. While numerous studies have found that school accountability boosts test scores, evidence from the unique five-year, three-round survey of elementary schools in Florida reaffirmed that test score gains reflect genuine improvements. See “Feeling the Florida Heat? How Low-Performing Schools Respond to Voucher and Accountability Pressure“ from the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy for more.

2. Increased Media and Public Attention

Transparency in evaluating schools attracts more attention – from extensive media coverage of individual school effectiveness to realtors who highlight good school grades as a selling point on the housing market. This attention brings more investments in time and energy from families, teachers, administrators, policy makers and all community leaders to support and improve schools.

Schools now have a real, tangible sign of their excellence and hard work. Despite any initial objections to school grades, it is not long before everyone begins displaying their grade on the school marquee, hanging banners, or doing local press about the fact that they earned the coveted A grade or jumped from a D to a B.

3. Community Support Emerges from Transparent, Simple Grading

In an A-F system, low performing schools are easily identified and communities rally around them. A-F states can share numerous stories of communities coming together to improve schools to raise student achievement.

For example, in one Florida district, an entire school board meeting was dedicated to how the district could become the first in the state with no C schools. That would not have happened if the old labels of “satisfactory,” “making progress,” and other vague language had still been in place.

4. Parents Are Empowered to Make Better Choices for Their Children

Easy-to-understand school grades are crucial for promoting transparency and helping parents choose the best school for their child. That’s why A-F school grades have been incredibly popular with parents. In a national poll, 84% of parents supported assigning schools a letter grade based on how well they educate their students (McLaughlin & Associates, 2014).

Real Results


States using A-F school grading


Current age of Florida’s A-F school grading system


Parents supporting assigning schools a letter grade based on how well they educate students


Times Florida has raised the bar on what is takes to earn an A, B, C, D or F grade


Dispelling Myths About A-F School Grading

School grading is often seen as “tough love” because it transparently identifies schools that are underperforming and allows parents and the public to easily compare schools. In reality, A-F approach allows schools to recognize and immediately address areas for improvement.

You might hear people say, “There’s a lot more to a school’s performance than a letter grade.” Of course there is! The purpose of A-F school grading isn’t to encapsulate everything that makes a school great just like a student’s report card doesn’t tell you everything about them.

Just like letter grades are important to measuring a student’s progress to accomplishing their academic goals letter grades hold schools accountable for clear, academic goals. That is why school grades should be reported to parents on a report card that includes a robust dashboard of additional information such as attendance data, school culture, extracurricular activities and other important information.

A-F Grading at National Summit

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