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Thoughts on a better way to rate NC schools

North Carolina's school performance grades are based on state texting. A proposed new system would add several new measures
Ann Doss Helms
North Carolina's school performance grades are based on state texting. A proposed new system would add several new measures.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

North Carolina’s school performance grades are deceptively simple — and I mean that literally. When you see an A or a C or an F, you’re deceived into thinking you understand something meaningful about the school. In fact, the snapshot of test scores tells you quite a bit about the kids who enter the building, but little about what happens inside.

Last week, state Superintendent Catherine Truitt met with the House Select Committee on Education Reform to discuss a possible alternative system. The proposal comes from almost two years of discussions with experts, educators and officials, including superintendents and leaders of charter schools. The system, which would require approval of the General Assembly, would still include results on state reading, math and science exams. But it would add data on career and college preparation, chronic absenteeism, teacher surveys and extracurricular activities. Each school would get four grades, for proficiency, progress, readiness and opportunity.

Truitt said the state needs to work not just on labeling schools more clearly, but on helping them improve. As a state and as a nation, we’ve been enthusiastic about the first part but feeble at the second. Truitt says the Department of Public Instruction will need more staff to support change.

“You push people into the school to work with the teachers and the principals to make them better,” she said. “Master educators know how to do that. It’s not rocket science.”

That’s open to debate — it seems like America has done better at launching rockets than creating uniformly high-quality schools — but Truitt at least acknowledges the need for more than shaming some schools and giving others bragging rights.

Simplicity, complexity and value added

Under the new system, an A school (probably one that has relatively low poverty levels and/or some type of selective admission) might become, say, an A/C/B/A school. Likewise, a high-poverty school with low proficiency levels might get a chance to showcase some strengths; it might show up as a D/A/B/B school, for instance. That would require parents or homebuyers scoping out a neighborhood to do more work — ideally, work that would lead them to understand more about the complexities of education.

But simplicity is tempting. Rep. Brian Biggs, a Randolph County Republican who chaired the meeting, asked Truitt about combining the new factors to create one average grade. “Because when parents look at schools, they know A, B, C, D,” he said. Truitt said that’s been discussed, but she thinks four separate, clearly labeled grades “tells a parent more than if we just combine them all into one letter grade with a very complicated algorithm.”

My biggest question is how close this might get us to teasing out what a school contributes to student success, beyond what’s shaped by families and communities. Schools serving affluent, stable communities with college-focused parents tend to have higher average test scores. They’re also likely to have lower chronic absenteeism, more enrichment activities and more teens who are on track for college or careers.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

Does the formula work?

When it comes to measuring the value added by schools and teachers, North Carolina relies on the SAS Institute’s EVAAS ratings, which use a complex formula to produce growth ratings. The system compares each student's current and previous performance on state exams to calculate whether a school met, exceeded or fell short of what’s expected.

Those ratings now account for 20% of a school performance grade, with proficiency as the other 80%. Under the new model, proficiency and growth would each account for one of the four grades.

Proficiency — and by extension, the current letter grades — tend to track demographics. The growth ratings highlight some high-poverty schools that have low proficiency but made big gains with students. But are the growth numbers truly meaningful? I’m pretty good at common-sense data analysis, but I lack the raw data and the advanced math skills to evaluate these calculations. I’ve heard mixed reviews from principals and teachers.

Kim Mackey, a Wake County social studies teacher, is doing an ongoing series in her educatEDpolicy blog arguing that these ratings are misleading and driven by politics and/or profit. If you’re willing to dive into the weeds of this stuff, her “Bursting the Bubble” pieces are worth a read.

Will the grades actually change?

The House panel’s discussion and Truitt’s work show that state officials are wrestling with important questions about accountability. But will talk translate to action?

Truitt talked about launching a pilot this fall, with districts and charter schools that volunteer to participate. That would require creating some new databases. Far more importantly, it would require legislative approval. In past years Senate leader Phil Berger has been the holdup, arguing that continuity is important. I emailed his press office twice last week asking about his receptiveness to this new approach, but got no response.

Education Education
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.