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Why definitions matter

Last week, House Bill 276 passed the House. The bill would change the definition of what qualifies as a low-performing school. Currently, a low-performing school is one that gets a D or F and doesn’t exceed growth. This bill would change the definition so that a low-performing school would be one that gets a D or F and fails to exceed or meet growth.

It may seem like a small change, but it makes a big difference. Basically, under the new definition, fewer schools will be labeled as low-performing. 

The only real intervention that happens with low-performing schools is that they are forced to come up with a school improvement plan. They don’t get extra funding from the state, nor do they necessarily get extra attention from the Department of Public Instruction. 

The current definition of low-performing schools came about in the 2014-15 school year. Prior to that, low-performing schools were those that did not meet growth and had less than 50% of students scoring at or above Achievement Level III (there are five achievement levels total) on End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests. In 2013-14, under the old definition, there were 367 schools that were low-performing. In 2014-15, when the new definition was applied, there were 581. That’s an increase of 58.3%.

Under definitions prior to 2013-14, the state only labeled about 100 schools in the state as low-performing. 

DPI is the agency tasked with helping these low-performing schools. Obviously, 100 is a more manageable number for intervention than 367 or 581 or 476, which was the number at the last release of the school performance grades,. 

And as the state has steadily cut funds to DPI, the agency’s ability to intervene has been hampered. In 2016, DPI was able to help about 75 of the state’s low-performing schools. In 2018, that number dropped to 35. 

In an article I wrote in 2015, Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation said that there is nothing standard about the term low performing. 

“There is no universal definition of a ‘low-performing school,’” he said. “Criteria used to classify schools have always been, and always will be, arbitrary.”

As such, we, as a state, need to consider the purpose behind the definition. One could argue that parents and students should know how well their school is faring, but if a definition is arbitrary, then it isn’t clear whether they’re learning anything significant from it. One of the common critiques of the annual school performance grades is that they simply measure poverty. And indeed, if you track the schools labeled as low performing, you will find that they are also the schools with the highest number of low-income students. 

In North Carolina, qualifying as a continually low-performing school will make you eligible for Restart status, which grants you certain flexibilities not afforded traditional public schools. But, of course, that option doesn’t need to be tied to a definition. The state can decide a different way to award the status.

So, every year, the state trots out a list of low-performing schools without ever answering the fundamental question of why. Why are we labeling these schools? What does the state gain from these definitions? And how does the application of these definitions improve those schools? 

Meanwhile, House Bill 276 moves on to the Senate.

Alex Granados

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