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Reporter Discusses Issues With NC's School Grading System


It's been a stressful time for a lot of North Carolina students this week as they finished taking their end-of-year tests. It's also stressful for teachers and school administrators because how kids do on these tests determine the A to F grades given to schools. There's a lot of outcry that the current school grading system is unfair. But lawmakers have been unable to settle on a new system. 

Ann Doss Helms has been examining this issue for our series Making The Grade. She spoke to WFAE's Marshall Terry about the series and the challenges in deciding on a fair way to evaulate schools.

Marshall Terry: Ann, explain the basics of the current grading system and why so many school administrators have a problem with it.

Ann Doss Helms: The current grading system is based almost entirely on how students do on their end-of-year exams, and 80 percent of that is based on their level of proficiency. That is, what percentage of the students actually scored a grade-level score on the end-of-year exams.

The other 20 percent is a complicated formula that's designed to say how much progress they made. So that gives some credit to schools where those kids may come in less prepared. They get to middle or high school -- they may come in well below grade level but the teachers make a lot of progress with them. The challenge is that's only 20 percent. And so if you look at the grades as rating essentially the performance of the adults who are on the public payroll holding them accountable, rewarding those who do well, maybe labeling those who don't do so well, this seems like a really good system. And that's kind of how it was pitched. But an increasing number of educators and even lawmakers are saying it doesn't really do that because the proficiency is so strongly tied to the demographics of the kids who come in. White and Asian kids do better than black and Hispanic kids. Non poor kids do better than poor kids. So essentially they're saying that these letter grades essentially really rate groups of students and parts of town and label some of them as superior and some of them as failing, and there's a lot of concern about that.

Marshall Terry: Is part of the problem going forward that they can't agree on how much to emphasize growth as part of the formula?

Ann Doss Helms: Definitely so, and I don't know how much agreement there is. Definitely, the chairs of both the House and the Senate education committees say growth needs a lot more emphasis, that this is a system that is shortchanging excellent work in high-poverty schools. But it's not clear that the leadership of the House and Senate - (Senate Leader) Phil Berger or (House Speaker) Tim Moore -  are on board with this. Craig Horn, who chairs the House education committee -- there's definitely some sentiment out there that once you create a system you shouldn't start revising it too quickly and that there may be people in the General Assembly who think we need to just stick with this system a little longer. Maybe a lot longer.

Marshall Terry: What's at stake for schools when they get good grades under the system or bad grades? Do people pay attention to these grades besides those who work at the schools?

Ann Doss Helms: They definitely do. And the bad grades can bring some pretty serious consequences. If you're a charter school, there could be eventually a threat of closing. If you are a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school that gets consistent D's and F's, families in that zone can get special priorities to opt out of that school, and that can create a cycle that's very difficult as the most motivated families leave. There are also parents who look at those grades -- and we heard from Rachel Hunt who is now a state legislator but was a school search consultant for a number of years before that -- and she said the parents look at those grades.

Rep. Rachel Hunt: Most parents won't visit 'C' schools, will not even take the tours. They will immediately decide they want the 'A' school because they want their children probably to make A's and be able to go to great colleges.

Ann Doss Helms: So again it tends to be a system that reinforces the schools that already have a lot going for them can find it easier to get the students who will continue to have good scores.

Marshall Terry: So the current system doesn't give academic growth as much weight. Only 20 percent. Does that mean there are good schools getting bad grades?

Ann Doss Helms: It does. I think that there is an argument to be made -- and I have heard it from Republicans and Democrats and from a number of educators and advocates -- that if you are at an extremely high-poverty school where kids come in with a lot of challenges – and poverty is really just a proxy for other things –  more trauma, for perhaps not a lot of exposure to either the English language or the standard English language, less exposure to books. If you have kids who come in with a lot of things holding them back no matter how great a job you do, their proficiency scores tend not to be as high as the kids who come in from homes with all the advantages. So a lot of people are saying it's very difficult for a high-poverty school to stand out under this system.

Marshall Terry: The state has come up with a new grading formula, one that goes from a 15-point scale to a 10-point scale. In other words an 89 would be a B but under the current system an 89 is considered an A. Yet the state keeps giving extensions to continue using that 15-point scale. Why is that?

Ann Doss Helms: Well the 10-point scale is actually the original scale, and it's the one that was in the law. The problem is if you actually run those numbers, you have very few A's and a whole lot of F's. And so for the first year they said, 'Well we'll give you a grace period.' And the idea was that somehow seeing these bad grades would just motivate students and/or teachers to do better. And that has never worked. That was part of the No Child Left Behind: Everybody was going to be proficient by 2014. It didn't happen. There was no way to miraculously get these scores better, so year-by-year they've said well, 'OK we're gonna do the 15-point scale again.' 'Well we'll do it for one more year.' "

And I don't think there's any real momentum to keep the system as it is and go back to a 10-point scale. That would make a whole lot of people angry. So the question becomes, do we just kind of keep extending this system that we've got on a year-by-year system, or do we look at really revising the formula?

Marshall Terry: Is there a danger in giving too much weight to academic growth?

Ann Doss Helms: There is. I looked at the numbers for Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, which is a charter school that unlike most schools is able to select for highly-gifted students. Obviously their proficiency is extremely high. Their growth is lower, and it's not clear to me that that means that they're not doing a good job with their students so much as those students may at a certain point top out on growth that can be measured on standardized exams. Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart has been kind of a critic of paying too much attention to growth because she says you can have good growth ratings and yet you can keep having high failure rates among students of color and students of poverty. She feels like however you do that, you can't just accept that.

Marshall Terry: The focus of your report today on wfae.org is CMS' new equity plan, which aims to close achievement and opportunity gaps in schools. What are the challenges in making that plan successful?

Ann Doss Helms: Well the big challenge is that nobody in America has really managed to close all of these gaps, and Charlotte has a history and CMS has a history of creating policies and generating reports and appointing advisory boards, and part of this equity plan is that they did agree to create a panel of up to 40 people from outside the system to sort of monitor this. And the fear of a lot of people is that all of these things will happen, [that] there will be a lot of talk, there will be a lot of reports and nothing will really change.