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Perspective | A single letter grade doesn’t measure up

The release of A-to-F school performance grades has become an annual marker in North Carolina education. Now the draft consensus report of a gubernatorial advisory commission calls for an end to the flawed, too-simplistic letter-grade score that hasn’t improved over time.

The draft report of the Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education, appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, addresses the issue in dry, non-inflammatory language: “Discontinue the School Performance Grades and create a new set of school and district accountability metrics…” Instead of engaging in tweaking the grading formula, the commission recommends that state officials move toward “multiple measures of school performance in the state’s accountability system.”

The school report cards originated in 2013 as an integral part of Republican legislators’ initiatives that also instituted a third-grade reading mandate, an expansion of charter schools, and tuition subsidies for lower-income students in private schools. More than 2,500 schools — traditional and charters — receive an annual report card consisting of its letter grade.

Regardless of the complexities, successes, and shortcomings in the daily interactions of teachers, staff, and students, each school gets marked with a single-letter — A, B, C, D, F. The grade is calculated according to a two-part formula: 80% based on students’ scores on standardized tests and 20% based on students’ performance, as compared to average statewide progress, over the course of a school year.

From the start, the system manifested its flaws. The formula put too much weight on moment-in-time test scores and not enough weight on progress over a year, commonly referred to as “growth.” The grades said more about the relationship of test scores and poverty than about how well each school responded to its educational challenges. Year after year, most of the schools graded D or F had high enrollment of students from low-income households, while schools serving more affluent students had A and B grades.

Though it doesn’t specifically address the grading system, the “E(Race)ing Inequities’’ study offers a further perspective. The study, led by James Ford, a member of the State Board of Education and executive director of the Center for Racial Equity in Education, was published by EdNC in August. It goes beyond familiar data on achievement gaps to point to a “direct link’’ connecting academic achievement to state-local government policies and in-school practices. The study observes “the basic reality that equitable access to quality instruction and education resources are powerful determinants of achievement outcomes.”

But, of course, the system doesn’t give an A-to-F grade to state legislators, the state superintendent and education board, or county school authorities for the policies and procedures they adopt that contribute to how well, or not so well, teachers and students perform.

To turn around low-performing schools, local districts have deployed the “restart’’ option provided by the state. More than 100 restart schools now operate with charter-like flexibility across North Carolina. And yet, that step toward creativity came along with a step backward when legislative cuts to the Department of Public Instruction budget led to the dismissal of more than two dozen staffers who specialized in upgrading low-performing schools.

The gubernatorial commission’s call to discontinue the letter-grade system is one among many findings and recommendations, and perhaps not its most potent. Still, putting aside such simplistic grading would open the way to developing a balanced set of assessments, including but not exclusively based on standardized tests.

“Public education is about more than just student performance on standardized assessments,” says the draft. “A strong public education system is also important for ensuring a well-informed and engaged citizenry, a prosperous and prepared workforce, and a robust and vibrant democracy.”

Citizens deserve an accounting of the performance and needs of their public educational institutions. Teachers use assessments of their students to move them from where they are to a higher plane of learning. Parents have a right to know how their children’s school is performing across several dimensions of their intellectual and social development. North Carolina can do better than the A-to-F school grades.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.