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Making The Grade: The Murky System Used To Evaluate Schools

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The school year is almost over, but there's uncertainty hanging over every public school in North Carolina. School letter grades, which influence where parents buy homes or send their kids to school, are on the minds of educators as lawmakers in Raleigh grapple with a grading system that has never quite worked as planned.

In this three-part series, "Making the Grade," WFAE correspondent Ann Doss Helms examines the challenges in grading North Carolina's public schools.

Hugo the Hornet led a dance. Their principal made a speech. Younger classmates lined the hall to cheer them on.

For the 8- and 9-year-olds at Oakdale Elementary and their third-grade counterparts across North Carolina, this month brought an initiation into the world of standardized testing. For them, taking end-of-grade exams measures their readiness to tackle fourth grade.

For principals and teachers, student test scores will morph into A to F letter grades that mark their schools for the coming year.

On the surface, school letter grades seem crystal clear: Schools that earn A's are excellent, C schools are average and F schools are failing their students and communities.

Reality is murkier. Schools that earn top grades almost always serve students who arrive ready to learn. A's generally go to neighborhood schools in areas where poverty is low and parent education high, or magnets that attract motivated and high-performing students.

D and F schools almost always serve students of poverty, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic. At schools such as Oakdale, a north Charlotte elementary school that logged a D last year, the pressure at test time is intense, for kids and their teachers.

"It's unfair to judge us on that one letter, although that's what happens, right?" said Oakdale Principal Mary Weston. Her skepticism about North Carolina's school performance grades is shared by many educators and experts – and a growing number of state lawmakers.

Last year Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had seven F schools, home to almost 4,300 students. Most of them are African American or Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

But if the state had actually followed its original plan, 70 of the 172 CMS schools receiving letter grades last year would have earned F's. Across North Carolina 860 schools would have failed, compared with 89 under the more lenient system.

Instead, each year the state has approved a temporary change to use a different grading scale – one where an F is 39 or lower, instead of 59 or lower – without revising the law that sets a stricter scale. If the General Assembly takes no action, the more stringent scale will be used this year.

"There are people who like to talk about how their kids go to an A school who will all of a sudden be in a B school, or even a C school," said Charles Jeter, a former state legislator who serves as the CMS liaison to other government bodies.

Local schools that would have lost their A status if the stricter system had been used in 2018 include Hough High in Cornelius, Community House Middle in south Charlotte and Piedmont Middle, an uptown magnet school.

Bad System, Big Impact

So this year state lawmakers are scrambling, as they have for the past six years, to patch together a school grading system that actually delivers on its promise: Giving the public clear, meaningful information about the quality of education their tax dollars support.

In addition to the "temporary" grading scale that has been used every year and the stricter scale lawmakers approved in 2013, at least three alternative school grading plans are working their way through the General Assembly. The chairs of the House and Senate education committees agree they want to put more emphasis on how much a school helps its student grow and less on the passing scores that come easier for students who arrive prepared.

"This is one thing that the public school folks and the charter school folks should agree on, that the current grading system doesn't acknowledge the hard work in some of the highest-need schools," said Sen. Rick Horner, a Nash County Republican who chairs the Senate education committee. "That's counterproductive to what we're trying to do. People need to be rewarded for their work, not labeled C and D and F."

However flawed the letter grades are, they carry real-life impact. Low grades can target a charter school for closing or a district school for state takeover. CMS offers families a special priority to opt out of schools that repeatedly get D's and F's.

School grades also shape neighborhood desirability and home sales.

"We have found that parents definitely look at that letter grade," said state Rep. Rachel Hunt, who used to work as a consultant helping parents choose schools. "If it's below a B – or sometimes an A – they will not consider that school."

All of that adds up to a system that critics say not only reflects racial and economic segregation but reinforces it by steering families who have options toward majority white, low-poverty schools that have been labeled superior.

And the low grades that often label high-poverty schools in black and Hispanic neighborhoods "pull the fire alarm," giving families a push to leave, said James Ford, a former CMS teacher who now works as an education consultant and serves on the state Board of Education.

How Did We Get Here?

School letter grades, like so many education reforms, originated in Florida in 1999. The idea spread, fueled by the school data reports required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

No Child Left Behind, which passed with bipartisan support, didn't ask states to give schools A to F grades. But it required them to publish school performance data, which was viewed as key to pushing every public school student in America to academic proficiency by 2014.

That, of course, didn't happen. Labeling failure turned out to be easier than eliminating it, even with billions of federal dollars in the mix.

But the idea that test scores can drive transparency and accountability is alive and thriving.

"Transparency" means anyone ­– from homebuyers to policymakers to teachers applying for jobs – can see what kind of results each public school gets. "Accountability" means educators, school boards, students and families will feel pressure to improve bad results.

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican who worked in food sales, said he knew little about education when he was tapped to chair the committee shortly before the letter grades debuted in North Carolina. As an employer, he recalls, he liked the idea of identifying schools that could provide a skilled labor force. Passing scores on state exams seemed like a decent proxy for those skills.

Horn and other Republicans also thought it wouldn't be a bad thing if families either left low-scoring schools or demanded change. "The idea was we're going to cause some competition here," he recalls.

Creating school letter grades from student exams is a bit like making burgers from cows: A whole lot of processing is involved.

Student scores are divided into five levels, with a three or higher deemed passing. The percentage of passing scores becomes a school's proficiency score ­(For high schools, graduation rates and some additional exams, such as the ACT college readiness test, are mixed in). That counts for 80 percent of the letter grade.

The other 20 percent is a "growth score" calculated by SAS, a software and analytics company based in Raleigh. The company created a complex formula designed to tease out how much progress students made and how much credit teachers can take for that. A high growth score offers a way to recognize schools that make big gains with students who are less likely to read or speak English at home where hunger and turmoil may be more prevalent than books and summers spent at enrichment camps.

Put it all together and you get a number from zero to 100. The plan approved as part of the 2013 budget uses the 10-point scale familiar to generations of students, with 90 and above earning an A and anything below 60 an F.

According to a state " background brief," the 15-point scale, where 40 or higher is passing and an 85 earns an A, was intended to be a one-time grace period for 2014, the year the first grades were issued. Each year since then, lawmakers have extended that scale – without making the change permanent.

Why? Horn said no one wants a surge in failing schools, and no one wants to take flak for watering down the accountability plan.

"Decisions are made out of fear," he said. "We don't want to be made fun of. We don't want to be called out."

Grades mask success

Horn and Horner, the two legislative education chairs, both say they'd like to see growth count for more, though they have different strategies for doing that.

Across the country, both race and family income consistently predict group averages on standardized tests, with white, Asian and middle-class students outperforming black, Hispanic and impoverished counterparts. While those patterns don't apply to individual students – there are plenty of high-performing students of color and poverty – the correlation between demographics and school performance grades is so strong that a 2015 report on the grades by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan education think tank, was titled " A is for Affluent."

Consider how that plays out at Idlewild, an east Charlotte school that was named best magnet school in America in 2017. It's a combined neighborhood/magnet school where all students take part in a curriculum designed for gifted students. The student body is racially diverse, and most come from low-income homes.

White students are a minority at Idlewild, but detailed breakdowns of the scores show those students performed just as well – or better than – white counterparts at low-poverty neighborhood schools in south Charlotte, such as Providence Spring and Polo Ridge elementary schools, where white students are in the majority. But Providence Spring and Polo Ridge earned A's, while Idlewild is graded a C school.

That, said Hunt, means a lot of families will never step through Idlewild's doors.

Another C school is Garinger High, a high-poverty eastside neighborhood school that earned a perfect 100 on growth, topping all but a handful of schools across the state. Its proficiency scores, however, were low. So it got the same grade as, for instance, Alexander Graham Middle School on the prestigious Myers Park campus, where students showed far less growth and but logged higher pass rates.

"That's nuts," said Sen. Horner, the education committee chair.

Kelly Gwaltney, who was Garinger's principal from summer of 2015 to fall of 2018, said her first steps focused on things that aren't measured on exams but were necessary to set the stage: Getting kids to class on time, cracking down on dress codes, laying out rules about when it's OK to use phones and earbuds.

Then she recruited two math teachers with a record of strong results in suburban schools to support her math team, which was made up mostly of first-year teachers. Their gains on Math I tests shot the growth rating to the top and moved Garinger from a D to a C. Gwaltney, who left Garinger because of health problems, hopes the school will see proficiency rise in coming years.

Some might say that's an example of school grades working as intended: The district brought in a strong principal and faculty with a strategy to improve a low rating. But Gwaltney remains a skeptic.

"It's easy to understand 'A is good, F is bad.' I think it's misleading," Gwaltney said. "What's not clear is what's behind the grade."

A better way?

There's no appetite for scrapping North Carolina's A to F school grades, say Horn, Horner and Hunt.

"I think we need a measuring stick," said Horn. ""The challenge is to understand what that measuring stick actually means. And I don't think we've done a good job of that at all."

Horn and Hunt both support proposals to give roughly equal weight to growth and proficiency.

Under that system, CMS would have had no F schools last year. Garinger would have moved up to a B.

On the flip side, though, a school like Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, a charter school for highly gifted students, would have slipped from an A to a B. That school logged extremely high pass rates but lower growth.

Horner, the senate education chair, prefers awarding each school separate grades for growth and proficiency. Schools that rate low on both should be targeted for intervention, he said, while schools such as Garinger that show strong growth would get recognition.

He admits his plan is complicated – but so, he said, is the reality of education.

And so is the process of changing state law. Several free-standing plans to change the letter grades have been introduced, and the House included a revised plan – one that gives equal weight to growth and proficiency – in its 2019 budget bill.

One thing is clear: For students, the stress of testing is over for the year. But for public schools awaiting their grades, weeks of uncertainty lie ahead.

Learn And Act

North Carolina school report cards provide detailed data about all public schools. The first page for any school displays only the letter grade, but click through to find several layers of detail about student readiness, test scores, teacher qualifications and school environment. The format allows side-by-side school comparisons and results broken down by race, economic status, English-speaking status and disability.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan Raleigh-based advocacy and analysis group, provides weekly updates on legislation related to education. Sign up here.

To weigh in on school performance grades, look up contact information for members of the state House and Senate.

Click the locations on the map to see how individual schools fare using different grading formulas. List view of school grades.

Next in our three-part series "Making The Grade," we take a closer look at "growth scores," whichaccount for only 20 percent of a school's grade, but many education experts says they're the best way to evaluate schools and teacher quality.

Copyright 2019 WFAE

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.