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Perspective | NC’s school performance grade model does harm to poor schools

In my travels around the state this year as our North Carolina Principal of the Year, I have not met a single person who has expressed conviction that our current school performance grade (SPG) model, which weights student achievement at 80% and student growth at 20%, is the best way to represent the health of our public schools.

Perhaps there are a few staunch advocates out there for our state’s SPG model whom I have not yet encountered, but I doubt it. Only North Carolina and Vermont weight achievement at 80% — the highest weighting of student achievement in the country.

Let me be frank about this: a single letter grade cannot capture the complex ecosystem of a school. There are so many other indicators of school performance beyond achievement and growth. For example, are our schools closing achievement gaps? Are we growing students toward proficiency? Are our graduates prepared for life after high school? Are our school cultures healthy for students? 

We know with certainty that our school performance grade model is biased toward affluent schools, and credit goes to the Public School Forum for its early reporting in 2015 on this correlation between socioeconomic status and school performance grades in “A is for Affluent: A – F School Grading System Needs Changes.”

For five years, we have continued to use this broken system, thereby misrepresenting school performance, stigmatizing poor districts, and obscuring the whole truth of school performance. Just a few months ago, the Public School Forum published yet another reminder: “Yes, ‘A’ Still Stands for Affluent in NC School Performance Grades.”

In affluent districts, students are more likely to attend preschool, start kindergarten on grade level, and stay on track to reach grade level benchmarks.  In poorer districts, students are less likely to attend high-quality preschool, to be prepared for kindergarten, and to keep up with their more affluent peers as they progress through school. In poor districts, the opportunity gap is evident on the first day of kindergarten, and systemic inequity and generational poverty can be seen in the faces of our children.

We need look no further than my home district of Edgecombe County to see the socioeconomic bias of our state’s school performance grade model. Edgecombe is a Tier 1, economically-distressed county that is ranked by the Public School Forum’s 2019 Roadmap of Need as 100 out of 100 counties — the very lowest ranking in our state. Every elementary school in our county is a Title 1 school.

Against all odds, 11 of our 14 schools in Edgecombe County “met” or “exceeded” growth last year, yet our current 80% achievement and 20% growth school performance grade model indicates that Edgecombe has two “F” schools, seven “D” schools, four “C” schools, and one “A” school.

Despite 79% of our schools meeting or exceeding growth expectations, our current school performance grade model indicates that 64% of our schools do not even earn a “C.” Does that seem right?

Carver Elementary School is in the top 2% of schools in North Carolina in terms of academic growth, yet our current school performance grade model labels them a “C” school. Does that seem right?

Pattillo Middle School is in the top 5% of schools in North Carolina in terms of academic growth, yet our current school performance grade model labels them a “D” school. Does that seem right?

Martin Millennium Academy, West Edgecombe Middle, and North Edgecombe High all exceeded growth, yet our current school performance grade model labels them “C” schools. Does that seem right?

For poor school systems like Edgecombe County Public Schools, it can feel like our accountability system is working against us. We are calling for an accountability system that works with us, a system that recognizes and acknowledges the multiple ways schools can be measured, and a system that allows us to highlight our actual school performance — not one so heavily influenced by non-academic, socioeconomic factors.

And to be clear, this is not a call for lowering expectations. Our Edgecombe County educators embrace high expectations for ourselves and our scholars.  We are one of the most innovative districts in North Carolina, having embraced advanced teaching roles, the restart model, dual-language immersion, trauma-sensitive education, and innovative “micro-school” design thinking all within the last few years.

This is a call for equity in our accountability system for schools and districts that grow kids beyond expectations and beyond circumstances.

What the statutes say:

Low-performing schools are 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” (G.S. 115C-105.37 Low-Performing Schools). 

A low-performing district is a local school administrative unit in which the majority of the schools in that unit that received a school performance grade and school growth score have been identified as low-performing schools. (G.S. 115C-105.39A Low-Performing Districts).

Based on the above statutes and the current SPG model, eight of the 14 schools in Edgecombe County Public Schools (or 57%) were identified as “low performing schools,” and because more than half of our schools were labeled “low performing,” our entire school district has been labeled “low-performing.”  Even though 79% of our schools met or exceeded growth, we are required to mail letters to every school family in our district announcing that we are a “low performing district.” Does that seem right?

By almost any other measure, Edgecombe County Public Schools is a high-performing district, not low-performing, yet our school performance grade model and general accountability statutes stigmatize districts like us. 

Imagine if you had to run a race uphill, with no shoes, carrying a friend on your back — and your performance was compared to other runners sprinting downhill with the wind at their backs wearing track spikes. It’s not a level playing field no matter how fast you run.

If our SPG model equally weighted growth and achievement (50% each), the SPG data for Edgecombe County Public Schools would suddenly look very different: the percentage of schools earning D’s or F’s drops from 64% to 7%.  No Edgecombe County school would earn an F.

Note: Use this interactive map to see how school performance grades would look using different formulas.

School Name2018 – 19 Growth Status School Performance Grade: 80% achievement, 20% growth School Performance Grade: 50% achievement, 50% growth
Coker Wimberly Elementary* Met D C
Bullock Elementary* Met D C
Carver Elementary Exceeded C B
Stocks Elementary* Not Met F D
Princeville Elementary* Met D C
Pattillo Middle Exceeded D C
West Edgecombe Exceeded C B
South Edgecombe* Met D C
Phillips Middle* Not Met F C
Martin Millennium Academy Exceeded C C
North Edgecombe HS Exceeded C B
Edgecombe Early College HS Exceeded A A
SouthWest Edgecombe HS* Not Met D C
Tarboro HS* Met D C

*8 schools labeled “low performing” according to G.S. 115C-105.37.

Under the current SPG model, 64% of Edgecombe County Public Schools received a “D” or “F” letter grade. Under a 50/50 SPG model, only 7% of schools would have received a “D” or “F” letter grade.

2018 – 19 SPGSchool Performance Grade: 80% achievement, 20% growth School Performance Grade: 50% achievement, 50% growth
“A” Schools1 1
“B” Schools 0 3
“C” Schools 4 9
“D” Schools 7 1
“F”  Schools 2 0

Had the School Performance grade calculation been 50/50, only one of our fourteen schools would have been identified as low-performing, and our district would not carry the “low-performing” label.

Even if we did revise the SPG model to equally weight achievement and growth, I cannot be at peace with any school performance grade model that combines growth and achievement into a single letter grade. They are two different indicators, and combining them into a single metric obfuscates rather than elucidates school performance.

Charlotte Mecklenberg’s Board of Education appears to agree, as they expressed on Twitter:

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act legislation requires that North Carolina utilize a single metric to identify low-performing schools; however, ESSA does not prohibit the state from creating a more robust, holistic reporting system that presents an unbiased data set for each school and district.

This is the charge of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Accountability Task Force, commissioned by the North Carolina State Board of Education to find a better way to measure our schools. While ESSA requires that achievement be the most heavily weighted component of our school performance grade system, it does not require that achievement and growth be the only two components.

I am hopeful that our SREB partners can make a recommendation to the State Board that levels the playing field for poor schools and that our General Assembly will hear our call for a better system. Both House Bill 354 and House Bill 266 that passed the House with wide support last year would have been more equitable than our current 80/20 SPG model.

Our current SPG model has done harm to our most disadvantaged school systems and communities, those underdog districts who are rapidly prototyping their innovation, who disrupt inequity every single day, and who grow kids against all odds. We must get it right this time.

As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.” 

Our schools deserve better. Our communities, families, and kids deserve better. Our administrators and teachers who work night and day to grow every single child, to make education relevant, and to create hope and opportunities for our young people — they deserve better.

Editor’s note: Views expressed are those of the author only.

Matt Bristow-Smith

Matt Bristow-Smith is principal at Edgecombe Early College High and the 2019 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year.