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Grading scale doesn’t add up for North Carolina public schools' performance

East Chapel Hill High School biology teacher Kelly Allen (center) works with students Emily Juel (left) and Claudia Masia on a lab activity on Wednesday morning.

East Chapel Hill High School biology teacher Kelly Allen (center) works with students Emily Juel (left) and Claudia Masia on a lab activity on Wednesday morning.

In 2013, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Excellent Public School Act, which mandates that schools receive an A-F grade annually based on their achievement scores and academic growth — but the grades might not tell a school’s whole story.

Eighty-nine percent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district schools scored an A or a B for the 2015-16 school year, compared to 32.2 percent of traditional public schools statewide that year and 83.3 percent in the district in 2014-2015. All CHCCS schools scored a C or better.

Markie Davis, a Chapel Hill resident and parent of two East Chapel Hill High School students, said attending a high-performing school gives students a chance to challenge themselves.

“The higher quality the school, the higher the kids perform,” she said. “It pulls everything up.”

But Davis said teachers make a big difference in the quality of classes, so deciding what qualifies a school as “high performing” is hard to decipher.

“Having a school be (considered) a good school is a complicated algorithm,” she said.

The 2015-2016 school year was the third year that North Carolina schools and districts received letter grades.

School performance grades are calculated based on a combination of achievement scores, which are gathered from test results, and students’ individual academic growth. Achievement scores account for 80 percent of the performance grade, while academic growth is 20 percent.

If a school gets a grade of D or F, it will be designated low-performing by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction whether it meets expected growth standards or not.

In 2014-2015, Efland-Cheeks Global Elementary School in the Orange County Schools district was designated low-performing, despite meeting the state’s academic growth expectations.

Principal Kiley Brown said the number of students who passed end-of-grade tests was not high enough, and the test results pulled their performance score down.

“We met growth expectations for our students, but we didn’t have the reading, math and science scores,” she said.

For 2015-2016, Brown said the school tailored lesson plans based on data showing what students already knew and what they needed to learn.

The elementary school saw large gains in its test results this year, and now has a C grade and is no longer considered low-performing.

“We’re really pleased by the growth,” Brown said. “We are going to continue working as a community and continue to improve.”

Grade controversy

When the law mandating accountability reports passed, the North Carolina General Assembly wanted a simple scale so parents understood the school performance grades.

“On one hand, with A-F grades, we can all relate to them because we all have experienced the grading scale,” said Karen Hoeve, section chief for analysis and reporting of the accountability services of the NCDPI.

Thurston Domina, an associate professor in the UNC School of Education, said he has mixed opinions about school performance grades and does not think the North Carolina formula for calculating these grades works.

“Kids come to schools with uneven skills and knowledge,” Domina said. “Eighty percent of the letter grade reflects not how well schools are doing, but who they are grading.”

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Jeff Nash, spokesperson for CHCCS, said school staff statewide are primarily frustrated with how the performance grades are calculated.

“They feel there is too much emphasis on performance data,” he said in an email. “They believe a school with traditionally low-scoring students that makes significant growth should earn a higher grade than a school with high-performing students that shows no growth.”

Hoeve said one should not solely look at school performance grades, because they don’t measure every factor. The annual school report cards also include information on graduation rates and end-of-grade test results.

“You can’t describe a school in one letter grade, just like you can’t describe a student in one letter grade,” she said. “One shouldn’t base thoughts and opinions on one measure.”

Potential consequences

Domina said school performance grades could provide information and feedback just like grades in the classroom, so schools and districts know where to improve.

“However, there is the risk that these grades will become labels that hang around a school’s neck and could unfairly hurt the schools in the future,” he said.

A low school performance grade can also cause negative economic effects.

Dory MacMillan, co-chapter leader for Students for Education Reform at UNC, said school performance grades are not an equitable standard because failing grades are correlated with the income of students at that school.

Ninety-eight percent of schools with an F in performance have 50 percent or more students in poverty.

MacMillian said low grades can affect funding in future years, but high grades can hide severe achievement gaps within the high-performing schools.

“(School performance grades) don’t appropriately measure and they don’t tell the full story of what is going on within a school,” she said.

If a school is labeled low-performing, there could be a negative effect on the value of homes in the district, Domina said — which is compounded by the fact that property taxes largely finance school budgets.

“It creates a problem where it continues to grow inequalities,” Domina said.

Impact of grades

Since introducing the A-F school performance grades, Hoeve said there has been an improvement in the schools considered high-performing.

Statewide, 32.2 percent of traditional public schools received As and Bs in 2015-2016 compared to 28.8 percent in 2013-2014, the first year the A-F system was in effect.

For CHCCS, Nash said, a big focus has been the quality of classroom instruction.

“I don’t think our teachers or students have changed their efforts based on any state testing or grading models,” he said. “If the school grading process was abolished by the state, our staff and students would still come to school every day prepared for teaching and learning.”

Seth Stephens, spokesperson for Orange County Schools, said they work to create ample education opportunities to meet the individual needs of students.

“The grade alone doesn’t necessarily tell the full story, so we focus on our students, not the grade,” he said.