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Superintendents worry state report cards don’t tell the whole picture

Originally published in The Dispatch on Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Local superintendents agree as leaders of the three school systems in Davidson County they should be held accountable to ensure students are learning, growing and succeeding in the classroom.

With the N.C. Report Cards being released Thursday based on data from the 2013-14 school year, the local leaders are inviting community members to visit schools and talk with teachers and administrators to receive an accurate representation of what’s taking place in the classrooms as they all expressed concern on how the school performance grades are calculated.

The three administrators have individually and together said the formula for the grading system mandated by the N.C. General Assembly is not a true reflection of each school and its successes or challenges.

The legislation set the guidelines on the report cards that reflect letter grades based on 80 percent of student achievement and 20 percent student growth. This marks the first time the information will be presented in this manner, including the letter grades.

During a webinar this past week, officials with N.C. Department of Public Instruction explained what parents should know when the scores are released.

Vanessa Jeter, director of communications and information services for DPI, said the grades are one indicator of what’s happening in the schools that show strengths and weaknesses.

“There is much more that goes on in the schools. Our schools are doing a good job with growth,” Jeter said.

Achievement weighs more than growth

Growth is the true indication to determine how a student is doing in the classroom, said Lexington City Schools Superintendent Rick Kriesky, who said the letter grades do not accurately reflect the amount of knowledge with which students are leaving the classrooms.

He said both achievement and growth should be used to determine the quality of a student’s education and how well he or she is being instructed by the teacher. He noted more than half of the city schools exceeded or met growth this past school year.

“Our percentages have gone up because our schools have either all exceeded state growth expectations or they met growth,” he said. “So our students are learning, but our achievement is still below average because our students start out in that manner. For our achievement scores to get where they need to, we will need to have three or four years where our children exceed expected growth.”

Kriesky said scores for schools that have a high percentage of economically disadvantaged children probably won’t accurately reflect the quality of instruction in the classroom.

“For those children who come to school and have access to a lot of experiences, books in the home, things that can get them off to a faster start in kindergarten, first grade, they start with achievement,” he said. “So to compare children who don’t have those things … that’s what you’re doing with achievement. Whereas if we’re talking about growth, that’s how much a child grows in one year. That’s a true measure of the quality of both instruction and how much students learn. It should be a combination, but not an 80/20 combination.”

Davidson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lory Morrow is worried the letter grades will be misunderstood as the only illustration of a school’s strengths and weaknesses. She said there are multiple ways to measure the success of individual schools and the school system at large.

“Growth tells our teachers the progress that our individual and collective students have made on a yearly basis. And it’s important to us as a district to analyze that growth and see where we’re strong and see what areas we need to support, but at the end of the day it’s our job to make sure our students are growing each and every day,” she said. “And that growth happens very differently for each individual student giving their current achievement level, their interest and abilities, the supports they have inside and outside school. The school performance grade is not the be-all, end-all label for each and every school in Davidson County.”

Morrow expressed concern how the grades could affect the teachers and the ranks of the principals who work very hard on behalf of students. She mentioned a good portion of the schools exceeded or met growth this past school year. She noted all of the middle schools in the system exceeded or met growth.

“I want to be held accountable as a superintendent. I want my principals to be held accountable as school leaders, but give us a fair and equitable system that showcases where we’re strong, where the areas we need to improve and allow us to showcase what we are doing to meet those needs,” Morrow said. “We have high-quality teachers and administrators in all of our schools. And again this letter grade is not a direct reflection of their performance. Our teachers and our administrators work very hard every day on behalf of our students, and they go above and beyond in so many ways to ensure kids have what they need.”

Measurements differ for high schools

Thomasville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Maria Pitre-Martin spoke about the high schools having multiple measures to determine grades, versus the lower grades that have fewer measures.

Achievement at the elementary/middle school level included end-of-grade scores from mathematics, reading, science, math 1 and biology. At the high school levels scores are determined based on scores from math 1, English II, biology, math course rigor, the ACT, ACT WorkKeys and graduation rates.

“We’ve been very clear about it. Not that we don’t want accountability; all schools should have accountability. Our problem is with the formula and the way that it has been presented and not taken a whole lot else into consideration except for those EOGs and EOCs,” Pitre-Martin said. “We said all along there are other indicators of a successful school. Are kids coming to school every day? Are discipline referrals going down? There are a lot of things that show you a school is a high functional nurturing environment for kids, not just the test scores.”

Pitre-Martin said across the state school districts have done really well with moving students forward. With all of Thomasville schools meeting or exceeding growth last year, Pitre-Martin said, 90 percent of the teachers are meeting or exceeding growth on the Education Value-Added Assessment System, which evaluates teachers.

She said a lot of things about the report card measure is contradictory because a school can have a C, D or F, but in reality the school could have exceeded growth that year.

“At the end of the day we have always wanted growth to be highlighted. Not all children start at the same place. When you look at growth and how far you grow children every year that’s a better indication of the work that’s happening,” Pitre-Martin said. “For many reasons, we have many children that come to us not speaking English as the first language. We have children that come to us that have not been exposed to print materials, books, magazines and newspapers. We have some children that live in homes that have a wealth of printed material. That’s a difference.

“Growth is a better measure for us and what we’re doing in the school system. We want our children to be proficient, but I think highlighting growth definitely signifies that not all children start at the same place. That’s an important message I think that gets lost in a lot of the discussions that we have.”

Taking a stand

For the first time, all three school superintendents came together to publicize their thoughts on the report card by writing a letter that was published in The Dispatch on Jan. 17.

In addition, the North Carolina School Board Association, North Carolina Association of Educators, N.C. DPI and many other school boards have come out with resolutions or public statements against the grading system.

Morrow said the county school board and others across the state plan to ask legislators to continue to refine and redesign the A-F grading model. She said they’re asking legislators to give the formula another look to possibly find a better way to measure strengths and weaknesses across the schools.

“I worry about the impact these grades will have on the economic growth and development of this community and state. Again because this is only one measure. This is not a true reflection of Davidson County Schools or any other school system for that matter,” Morrow said.

Both Lexington and Thomasville city schools have passed resolutions on how ineffective and potentially damaging the formula for the report cards can have locally and statewide.

Kriesky said that was important because for his students, the scores create an unfair playing field on which to measure them.

“I think there’s a strong possibility if we continue to get the facts to legislators that they will see that is not an accurate reflection,” Kriesky said. “What is bad is because the report card is skewed, it makes our students in North Carolina look less educated than they actually are. From an economic standpoint, if you look at companies that are looking to relocate, if they don’t understand about the report card process, this is an artificially negative way to compare our schools to schools in other states.”

Pitre-Martin explained it’s an interesting time to be in education right now because there is a lot going on.

“If we’re going to promote ourselves, this is the time to do it. … As educators we don’t tend to brag and praise ourselves. But we’re in a time right now that if we don’t say what is good going on in our schools, this will stand as the word,” she said.