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EdExplainer: How schools are graded and why it matters

House Bill 13 dominated the headlines before crossover, but several other important pieces of education legislation could change the way the state’s school performance grades are calculated or presented. 

What is a school performance grade?

School performance grades are assigned to every school in the state. They measure how well the school is doing by measuring the academic growth and academic achievement of students in the schools. At present, 80 percent of the grade comes from achievement and 20 percent from growth. 

The grades are presently on a 15-point scale, which means that a score of 85 or higher is an A. A score of 70 to 84 is a B, and so on. Eventually, the grades will transition to a 10-point scale, where an A is 90-100. 

What is academic growth and achievement?

Academic growth and academic achievement are two different ways the state measures student performance. 

Academic achievement shows whether a student knows what he or she is supposed to know at any particular grade level. A student is considered proficient if he or she demonstrates on a standardized test that he or she knows the grade level material.  

Academic growth is a measurement of how much a student has learned. It is determined by measuring expected progress against actual progress. The measurement is complex because it is independent of whether the student knows what he or she should know in a given grade. 

For instance, a student could enter third grade with the set of knowledge and skills expected of a first grader. If the expectation is that the student will learn a year’s worth of knowledge in a year, then that student could end third grade with the knowledge of a second grader. The student would have met growth, but would still be behind expectations for a third grader. 

What is the controversy? 

Much of the controversy over the school performance grades stems from what academic achievement shows. In previous releases of the grades there has been a strong correlation between low school performance grades and poverty. The argument is that in these schools, students arrive disadvantaged and behind grade level. The teachers may be high performing, and the students may be making great strides, but if the students started very far behind grade level, they may have a hard time catching up. In a system that emphasizes academic achievement, a school could receive an F despite the fact that there is a lot of progress in the classroom. 

Another argument is that schools with a higher-wealth population will tend to have students with better academic achievement. The students come from families with the means to make sure they succeed. These students may come to school already at grade level or above. As a result, they may score well on tests. Because of this, the school may receive high marks for academic achievement and a corresponding successful school performance grade. This could happen irrespective of whether the students are showing academic growth beyond their initial achievement level. 

Those who argue for the importance of academic achievement say that this is the measure that shows whether students know what they are supposed to know. 

Why does it matter?

A school’s grade may have consequences. At present, the state categorizes low-performing schools as, “those that receive a school performance grade of D or F and a school growth score of ‘met expected growth’ or ‘not met expected growth.'”

Additionally, an entire district may be labeled a low performing district if the majority of schools in the district are low performing. Schools or districts labeled low performing must come up with a plan to improve growth and achievement scores. 

A bill that passed the House but has not been heard in the Senate would remove schools that met growth from categorization as a low-performing school. 

What are the current proposals?

Two measures currently under consideration would address school performance grades. House Bill 322 would change the calculation of the grades to give equal weight to academic growth and academic achievement. Another bill, House Bill 458, would require that schools receive two separate grades: one for achievement and one for growth. 

Critics of the school performance grading system have long wanted something like what is provided in House Bill 322. The even distribution will likely result in fewer Ds and Fs for schools in North Carolina, and supporters of the even distribution argue it is more representative of what is actually happening in the schools. Some people who favor giving more weight to academic growth than currently provided say it is a more accurate representation of the efficacy of teaching, whereas academic proficiency simply demonstrates how well students do on a test on a given day. 

How do the proposed changes compare to the present grades? 

Using the data from the 2015-2016 school year on performance and achievement, we calculated how grading might change under the proposed 50/50 rule. 

Under the old system, using the original 2015-16 school performance grade numbers, of a 80/20 split, 98 schools receive an F and 469 receive a D. The official state release showed four more schools with an F. Our numbers are slightly different because we did not include schools that were missing either or both growth and achievement numbers. 

Under the 50/50 split, six schools would have received an F and 258 schools would have received a D. 

How does the grading scale play into overall grades?

There is an added wrinkle to this whole conversation. What scale is being used to measure these grades? At present, the scale is 15 points. The General Assembly has indicated a desire for the scale to be reduced to a 10-point scale. A scale shift will result in more failing grades. 

In the 2016 budget, the General Assembly locked the scale at 15 points through the 2018-19 school year. At first blush, it appears the language in House Bill 322 would move the grades to a 10-point scale starting next year. But the budget provision from last session supersedes the language in the bill referencing a 10-point scale. Because of the budget measure, the 15-point scale will remain in place until after the 2018-19 school year. 

Nonetheless, changes could be underway if a 10-point scale is ever implemented.

Under the current system of 80/20, using a 15-point scale, 98 schools received an F and 469 schools received a D. As previously stated, under the 50/50 split on a 15-point scale, there would be six schools receiving an F and 258 schools receiving a D. If the scale shifts to 10-points, using a 50/50 split, then the numbers increase: 495 schools would receive an F and 785 schools would receive a D. 

School performance split 15-point scale 10-point scale
80 achievement/20 growth

D: 469 schools

F: 98 schools

D: 762 schools

F: 887 schools

50 achievement/50 growth

D: 258 schools

F: 6 schools

D:785 schools 

F: 495 schools

What happens now?

Both HB 458 and HB 322 passed the full House. Now the Senate will consider which measure to select.

At the end of this session, it is likely that one of three things will happen: things will remain the same; the grades will be calculated using a 50/50 split; or schools will receive separate grades for academic growth and academic achievement. 

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, one of the primary sponsors of House Bill 322, thinks the Senate will be more amenable to the bill that gives schools two separate grades. But the measure is not his preference. 

“I would hope that we would get the 50/50 through,” he said. “I can live with the two-grade split.”

Horn said that if he could get what he wants, the grades would be calculated using 80 percent academic growth and 20 percent academic achievement. But that is unlikely to get Senate support, so he put forward the 50/50 split instead. 

“To me, education is growth,” he said. “It’s all about growth.” 

If the bills are taken up in the Senate, the Senate education committee will be an important testing ground for lawmakers’ thoughts on the proposed changes. But it may be a little longer before the bills get a hearing in committee. Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, is co-chair of the Senate’s education committee. Staff in his office said the Senate is busy working on its budget proposal and will not consider any bills from the House until after the Senate plan is complete.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.