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School grades teach lessons

Those who care about education reform learned a lot on February 5 when North Carolina released its first letter grades for public schools. The grades reflect three sets of information: average student performance on end-of-year tests, the amount of annual growth in those scores, and graduation rates.

First off, we learned the scope of the challenge awaiting us. Many students have yet to master core academic subjects. Only 5 percent of the state’s public schools received As for performance during the 2013-14 academic year. Nearly 30 percent received Ds or Fs.

That’s the best possible spin on the results, actually, because for this first year of grades North Carolina used a 15-point scale — 85 and up earned the school an A, 70 to 84 a B, etc. Next year, the letter grades will be based on a standard 10-point scale. If that rule had been in place for 2013-14, more than 70 percent of North Carolina public schools would have received Ds or Fs. The average score was a 62. That’s a C this year but a low D next year.

The second thing we learned from the grades is that district-run public schools and chartered public schools have rather different performance patterns. There are more high-performing charters — 41 percent received As or Bs, compared to 29 percent of district schools. But there are also more low-performing charters — 31 percent getting Ds or Fs, vs. 29 percent of district schools.

The third thing we learned is that there is growing support across the spectrum for altering the letter-grade formula. Under current law, actual student performance makes up 80 percent of the score while growth in performance accounts for 20 percent. While our ultimate goal is to see significant gains in proficiency, schools are not entirely responsible for current test scores. Some students enter school ready to learn. Others don’t. Differences in socioeconomic background and parental support are typically reflected in average scores.

So grading schools overwhelmingly by scores rather than changes in scores may not convey the best information to educators, parents, and taxpayers. Some schools may receive As or Bs because they have a disproportionate number of students from affluent households, not because they are particularly effective at delivering at least a year’s worth of academic growth for every year of operation. Other schools may receive low grades despite doing a better-than-average job of moving students from, say, Level 1 to Level 2 or Level 2 to Level 3 on the state’s end-of-grade tests.

Other states that use letter-grading systems have sought more of a balance between absolute performance and performing growth. I think a 50-50 split, or at least something closer to it than 80-20, would be a reasonable approach.

The final thing school reformers learned from the release of the 2013-14 letter grades is that there is a loud faction, including but not limited to the North Carolina Association of Educators, who don’t seem to believe in any practical means of ensuring accountability for results.

They don’t like standardized testing, at least not testing with consequences. They don’t want the testing data used for evaluating schools or teachers. They really don’t like the letter grades, no matter what formula is used to generate them, and preferred the old system of assigning “schools of excellence,” “schools of distinction,” and other nebulous labels that mean little to the general public.

Nor do these interest groups want to see parental choice and school competition used as a mechanism for accountability. They never liked charter schools and opposed allowing them to grow. They detest the new Opportunity Scholarship program that provides funds to low-income students and those with special needs to attend private schools if their parents deem it best for them.

If not consequential testing or the forces of competition, what other means can ensure accountability for results? School board elections? NCAE loves that idea, since it can wield disproportionate influence in such low-turnout races. Moreover, adverse test scores and enrollment trends are precisely the information reformers might cite in their campaigns for school boards.

I give the idea an F-minus.

John Hood

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history.