Letter grades seemed so simple in school. When your teacher gave you an "A," it meant you did really great work, a "C'' was average and an "F'' meant you had failed at the tasks on which you were being judged.


 Letter grades seemed so simple in school. When your teacher gave you an "A," it meant you did really great work, a "C'' was average and an "F'' meant you had failed at the tasks on which you were being judged.

Leave it to Louisiana's education leaders to make a direct letter grading scale so messy and confusing. Of course, state lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal had a hand in the problem as well, suggesting that it's a straightforward task to grade Louisiana's public schools - and providing little guidance on how it should be done.

It seems like a great idea: Assign a letter grade from "A'' to "F'' for the nearly 1,300 schools so parents can understand what type of education their children are receiving.

"People can relate to grades," said Penny Dastugue, president of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The idea is where simplicity ends, however.

The road to BESE determining how to assign grades got wrapped up in issues of poverty, performance improvements and the other struggles that face school superintendents, principals and teachers every day.

Should a school be rewarded for how much it improved its students' achievement rates and given a better grade even if its overall results still show a large percentage of students performing below their grade level and the state's standards?

Is it fair for a school in a poor neighborhood where many students don't have parental support and don't get basic reading training before they enter school be graded against a school in a wealthier neighborhood where more students start off with greater advantages?

If you curve the system, will it really provide any useful information to parents and will it meet the intent of what lawmakers and the governor wanted out of the grading scale?

Does a letter grading system in some cases discount the strides a school is making or the hard work its teachers are doing? Could it damage morale and make it more harder for a lower-graded school to attract strong teachers and education leaders to help improve it?

BESE wrangled with those difficult questions before backing a grading scale Thursday, in a 6-4 vote. In the end, the board went with a tougher letter-grading system than was proposed by district superintendents, a panel of educators and Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek.

The first letter grades will be assigned to schools in October 2011, when the latest school performance scores are released by the state education department. The letters will replace a previous grading system that had involved a series of stars.

Schools will be graded "A'' through "F'' based on the performance score they receive in the state accountability system, which consider student standardized test scores, attendance rates and dropout rates.

A "plus" will be added to the grade if a school meets its annual improvement goal, while a "minus" will be added if the school's performance declines.

Pastorek wanted a different structure that would give schools that improved their growth score a letter boost, but BESE members objected. School district superintendents wanted a more generous grading scale than what got approved.

Dastugue acknowledged that even the revised, tougher scale "is a pretty generous curve," though she also called it reasonable and balanced.

Schools that receive an "A'' can have as many as 12 percent of their students performing below "basic" or below grade level. Schools with a "B'' can have as many as 23 percent below grade level, with a "C'' can have up to 36 percent and with a "D'' up to 61 percent.

In other words, at a "C'' level school, one in three students can fall behind the state standard of where they should be performing. Is that average? Is a "D'' school where 6 in 10 students aren't performing at their grade level really a passing school?

To know what the grades really mean, parents will still have to do a bit of homework.