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NC officials move toward a more sophisticated way to rate public schools

Students in a classroom
Ann Doss Helms
Students at Huntersville Elementary School.

North Carolina education officials are moving toward consensus on a better way to rate public schools, a deputy superintendent told the state Board of Education on Wednesday.

The current system of A through F letter grades, which are based primarily on student proficiency on state exams, has been controversial for years. Those ratings tend to say more about the advantages or disadvantages students arrive with than the quality of instruction in schools. Top grades generally go to low-poverty schools and magnets that attract motivated students. Failing grades almost always signal a high-poverty school where students face a range of challenges.

“The model doesn’t really work for us anymore,” Deputy Superintendent Michael Maher told the board, noting that it was created 12 years ago. “This work that we’re engaging in now offers us an opportunity to reduce our reliance on test scores and think about adding valuable school quality indicators.”

The letter grades can influence how parents, teachers and even students view a school. This year almost one-third of the state's 2,600 schools were rated D or F, up from 22% before the pandemic.

"The pandemic really shed light on some of the shortcomings of our existing model," Maher said.

Maher said a survey that got 19,000 responses from across the state, as well as discussions with educators, administrators and advocates, shows the public wants a change. And he said there’s broad agreement on some elements of what a better system should look like.

For instance, he said, there’s a desire to see different models for elementary, middle and high schools to reflect the things that matter most at each level. And while test-score proficiency will continue to be one factor — that’s required by the federal government — he said people want to see the state do more to gauge whether schools are reducing disparities based on factors such as race, income and English proficiency.

“Let’s actually dig into the work,” Maher said. “Let’s look at our student groups and see how we are improving the performance of students by group in a school or in a district.”
There was also strong agreement at the board meeting that high school ratings should include participation in advanced classes and success in preparing students for jobs or college. But Maher said some other areas of consensus, such as rating teacher effectiveness and “school climate,” are harder to measure.

Focusing on certain types of data can create “perverse incentives,” or motivation to do things that make the problem worse, he said. For example, if schools are marked down for high levels of suspension or other disciplinary measures, they could avoid enforcing discipline that would make the school safer and more orderly.

Superintendent Catherine Truitt said measuring school climate is complex.

“It’s not just the students who need to feel that their school is a place where they belong,” she said. “Our teachers need to feel that this is a place where they belong and are valued … and students’ parents need to feel that this is a safe place for them.”

Maher said surveys of employees, students and families can be one way to gauge climate, but “there are lots of challenges with surveys, which is why we want to have the opportunity to kind of pilot some of this work.”

The Department of Public Instruction is working with an advisory panel of educators, administrators, politicians and advocates to create a proposal for new ratings. Frank Barnes, chief accountability officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and John Marshall, head of Union Academy Charter School in Monroe, are on that panel.

The goal is to present a plan to the General Assembly in January or February, in hopes of having a pilot program in place for the 2023-24 school year. The Department of Public Instruction is posting information and updates online.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.