Environmental report card grading system

Bill Dennison ·
6 April 2010
Environmental Report Cards | 

The grading system used in the EcoCheck environmental report cards is a simple, systematic ranking scale. The one hundred point scale is divided into five equal categories; A (80-100), B (80-60), C (60-40), D (40-20) and F (20-0). Furthermore, the grades have a plus and minus scale, so that the upper 5 points of the 20 point range results in a plus score and the lower 5 points of the 20 point range results in a minus score. The only exception to this scale is the "F" score, which does not have a plus or minus.

This grading system for environmental report cards does not correspond to the scales that most students are familiar with from school report cards—where at least a 90/100 is required for an A, and less than a 60 or 70 is an F. The reasons for the broader spread in scores in the environmental report card are the following: 1) all of the Chesapeake Bay scores would be an F using a <70 scale in each reporting region, 2) it is unlikely that this grade of F using a <70 scale would change for years to decades, 3) comparisons between regions would be impossible, and it is often the relative, not the absolute, rankings that provide the most relevant information.

An important feature of any report card is the transparency of the grading scheme, providing a clear definition of requirements and maintaining consistency in assigning scores. In the environmental report cards, this translates into presenting the grading scheme with each report card map, tables of thresholds and reference(s) supporting each threshold, and standardized, data-driven calculation methods for scores.

Chlorophyll a thresholds
Example of thresholds used for chlorophyll a indicator from the EcoCheck web site

Environmental report cards do not provide opportunities for 'extra credit'. Extra credit provides incentives for effort and attitude, and this can be captured in reporting implementation progress or management responses, but does not factor into reporting the health of the ecosystem. Report card scores are not graded on a curve from one year to the next—the same thresholds and grading scheme are maintained from year to year.

Environmental report cards are designed to be communicated with a broad public audience. Virtually everyone in the community has received report cards for many years of schooling, and intuitively understand that 'D's and 'F's are sub-par and one should aspire for 'A's. A rigorous and objective grading scheme is necessary and the report cards need to be delivered by an independent and trusted source. If the source is trusted, and reporting scheme transparent and rigorous, then the grading scheme should not be the issue. Rather, the issue with report cards should be what the community can do to improve scores and aspire to an A score.

There have been as many as three different report cards for Chesapeake Bay delivered each year. In 2000, the first report card for the Bay was generated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the largest non-government organization focused on Chesapeake Bay. Their annual 'State of the Bay' report used 12 indicators of pollution, habitat and fisheries on a 0-100 scale, with a pristine Chesapeake Bay in the John Smith era receiving a one hundred. CBF recognized that Bay restoration would never achieve pristine conditions and set goals of restoring the Bay to a 40 by 2010 and 70 by 2050. However, the report card scores were either 27 or 28 when they were calculated from 2000-2009. CBF added letter grades for each indicator with a liberal grading scheme (in 2005, a score of 71 = A-; 21 = D-).

The Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP), a federal/state partnership led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began generating health and restoration assessments in 2006. For the 2008 assessment, CBP created the 'Bay Barometer' in which 11 indicators of water quality, habitats and lower food webs, and fish and shellfish were scored on a 0-100 scale, with restoration targets serving as the 100% goals. The 2008 assessment scored the health of the Bay with a 38%. No letter grade was assigned to that score. Restoration efforts were also scored, receiving a 61% in 2008.

The EcoCheck report card, a partnership between the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office, began geographically detailed report cards in 2006. This report card uses 6 indicators; 3 water quality indicators and 3 biotic indicators, on a 0-100 scale. In 2008, the overall report card score was 43% and the grade of C- assigned, based on the report card grading scheme.

Chesapeake Bay Report Card Map
2008 EcoCheck Chesapeake Bay report card map with 0-100 scale

The three groups generating report cards for the health of Chesapeake Bay (CBF, CBP, EcoCheck) have been discussing ways to consolidate the health reporting so as to avoid 'report card fatigue' and possible confusion as to the different approaches, methodologies and ultimate scores.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Interim President at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).

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