The Games States Play with School Grades

A State’s Report Card Can Vary from A to F, Depending on the Grader’s Agenda

The Grading Game

“Report cards” that grade states on their education policies assign rankings that vary tremendously, depending on the political ideology of the grader, according to a new review released  by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC). As a result, every state has been assigned a “D” or “F” by at least one of these report cards in the past few years, and almost every state can claim an “A” or “B” grade from another report card.

Sherman Dorn,
University of South Florida
Professor of Education

Sherman Dorn, University of South Florida professor of education, and Ken Libby, University of Colorado Boulder doctoral student, reviewed the State Policy Report Card from StudentsFirst, the organization founded and headed by former Washington DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee. They discovered the great variation in grading results as part of their broader examination of the overall genre of state report cards.

Dorn and Libby wrote the review for the Think Twice think tank review project of NEPC, which is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

The StudentsFirst report card assigned letter grades to states based on whether state policies matched the advocacy group’s policy preferences in 24 areas that include school choice, test-based accountability, and greater centralization of school governance.

“As is common with the ‘grading the states’ genre, the report card is designed to provide a simple news hook in the ‘grade,’” the reviewers observe. In describing how this process works, Dorn and Libby point readers to several news organizations that published stories upon the newest report card’s release.

Dorn and Libby continue: “While the relative rankings are predictable, based on the organization’s stated policy goals, the exercise of assigning grade labels to states is a political act designed to advance a particular agenda rather than a serious academic exercise.”

Moreover, the proliferation of such state “grades” has had the effect of undermining the news value of such reports, as comparisons among various such reports show that all but three states can point to an “A” or “B” from some such assessment, while every state also has received Ds or Fs.

The report card might be considered useful as a compilation of policies by state, the reviewers write. If clearly explained and based on criteria that advance student learning, state grading exercises can provide useful summaries of a given state’s strengths and weaknesses. However, as with the new StudentsFirst report card, when the data collected for rating purposes has a narrow scope and is merely shorthand for an advocacy position, it has little or no usefulness as an examination of existing policy or as guidance for future policy.






The Think Twice think tank review project ( of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policy makers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.
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 review is also found on the GLC website at

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