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Making The Grade: Evaluating Teachers And School Growth

In Part 1 of "Making the Grade," we looked at the imperfect system used to assign letter grades to North Carolina schools. In Part 2, we examine "growth scores," which are seen by some as a better way of evaluating schools and teacher quality.

Biology teacher Taylor Conner is an above-average teacher in an average school with below-average student performance, according to state data.

She teaches at West Charlotte High School, which was graded a C last year. Her students did better on the 2018 biology exams than their performance on previous state exams would have predicted, so the state ranked her high on contributing to their success.

But West Charlotte, with one of the highest poverty concentrations in a city that's known for racially and economically segregated schools, logged pass rates well below state and district averages on all state exams, including biology.

"Some of our students don't have a place to live, so you're battling with where you're going to sleep tonight vs. where you're going to eat. So maybe testing is the last thing on your mind," Conner said as she prepared this year's students for exams that will label not only the skills of the kids but also the effectiveness of Conner and the school.

In a nation that's committed to using numbers to size up public education, teacher quality ratings are the holy grail — desired but elusive.

Information about where to find the best teachers is especially important in a choice-driven environment such as Charlotte, where neighborhood, magnet, charter and private schools vie for students. Policymakers trying to ensure equal opportunities for students need a reliable way to identify schools that have a strong faculty and those that need help.

When You Shut The Door

The school growth rating, which currently makes up 20 percent of North Carolina's A to F grades, provides the best single snapshot of teacher quality, according to several educators, experts and legislators interviewed about grading schools and teachers.

State Sen. Rick Horner, a Nash County Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, said pass rates on state exams mostly reflect "what walks in the door" – that is, the background of students that primes them to succeed or struggle.

"Growth is what happens when you shut the door," Horner said.

He'd like to make growth ratings more prominent. "You could literally tell a parent something pretty useful if we got it right," he said.

Unlike the overall letter grades, growth ratings aren't predictably linked to demographics. Consider the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools that scored higher than 95 (on a 100-point scale) on growth last year: Garinger High, a high-poverty eastside neighborhood school that got an overall C; Piedmont Middle, a diverse uptown magnet school graded A; Bailey Middle, Robinson Middle and Ardrey Kell High, all low-poverty neighborhood schools that earned A's; Independence High, a diverse neighborhood school in southeast Charlotte that got a B; and Marie G. Davis, a high-poverty K-8 magnet school graded C.

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

Teachers' Value

Growth scores sprung from a push in the late 1990s and early 2000s to quantify each teacher's contribution to student success. The Cary-based SAS analytics company created Education Value-Added Assessment System ratings, or , to tease out the value added by each teacher after accounting for such things as previous performance, poverty, English fluency and other factors that might boost or depress students' test scores.

Former CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman, who led the district from 2006 to 2011, was a huge proponent. He introduced new local tests to enable "value-added" ratings for all teachers and talked about tying all paychecks to such data. He hit immediate resistance from teachers and parents, and the plan fell off the agenda when the Great Recession brought layoffs and school closings.

North Carolina briefly used individual teachers' EVAAS ratings in job evaluations. Today those ratings – which have never been available to the public – are used to rate teachers blue, green or red depending on whether they exceeded, met or fell short of the state's projections for how their students would perform.

In CMS, "blue teachers" such as Conner are eligible for Success by Design positions that carry big raises for added responsibility. Conner is an "extended impact" teacher, a category that brings an additional $2,250 to $9,000 a year for teaching more students. An average class would have 15 to 20 students, Principal Timisha Barnes-Jones said, while extended impact teachers take on 35 to 40.

At Garinger High, then-Principal Kelly Gwaltney recruited high-growth math teachers from Community House Middle and Hough High – both low-poverty suburban schools – to serve as multi-classroom leaders, a post that adds $11,250 to $18,250 to the annual salary. Those proven veterans worked with what she called a "high will, novice skill" math team to create gains that pushed Garinger to a growth score of 100 last year, Gwaltney said.

Success by Design is a CMS program, but the model is being piloted in other districts around the state.

Better But Not Perfect

While outsiders can't look up an individual teacher's rating, it's easy to check any public school's growth score on the state's School Report Card site. One click gets a prominent display of five years' worth of growth and performance scores, while a second click allows viewers to see those ratings broken down for subgroups such as race, economic disadvantage and English learners.

That was important for Frank Barnes, who had school-age daughters when he was recruited from Boston to oversee data and accountability for CMS. Barnes, who is African American, knew that overall averages can mask weak – or strong – results with minority students.

In elementary and middle schools, growth ratings are based on state reading, math and science exams given in grades 3 to 8. That provides a fairly complete academic snapshot.

But in high school, growth ratings say little about most of the teachers. Last year's growth score was based only on performance on math and English exams. That means a school with an outstanding Advanced Placement or career-prep program wouldn't see that work reflected in a growth score. Even biology, which has a state end-of-course exam, wasn't factored in.

Chelsea Roberts, who teaches Math I at West Charlotte, said the growth score is definitely the best gauge of faculty quality because it takes into account where students started. Only 8 percent of West Charlotte's entering ninth-graders last year had passed eighth-grade reading and math exams, the state report card shows. Roberts said she gets some who struggle with elementary-school skills.

"Some of my kids, they don't know where their next meal is coming from and it's hard for them to focus on the academics when they're trying to focus on 'How am I going to find something to eat for me and my siblings' or 'I can't come out for tutoring because my parents are expecting me to get my siblings off the bus to watch them while they work these long hours,' " Roberts said.

Other Measures

State report cards show other measures that can help gauge the strength of faculty: Levels of experience, turnover, and the percentage of teachers who are fully licensed, hold advanced degrees and/or National Board Certification. All come with comparisons to state and district averages, and schools can be selected for side-by-side comparisons.

No single factor tells you whether a school or an individual teacher will be good, but they can combine to paint a picture that helps parents know what to expect. No set of numbers should replace classroom visits, educators and experts agree.

"Go in and ask the teachers. Visit," said Oakdale Elementary School Principal Mary Weston. "You want to ask the hard questions. That's how you choose a school."

Both CMS and the state experimented with using student surveys to rate teachers several years ago. But many superintendents balked at being required to use them, so the state backed away. State Board of Education member James Ford, a former CMS teacher, laments what he calls a missed opportunity.

"That data was really rich and really good, and it ended up getting shelved," Ford said. "Students know who the good teachers are. They do."

Isis Clifton, a West Charlotte student, agrees.

"I think students know when a teacher cares about them and they're actually giving their all and putting effort into teaching," she said.

Learn More

North Carolina School Report Cards provide growth ratings and teacher qualifications for all public schools, including charters. To get details on how different types of students fared on growth and achievement, click "view performance by subgroup."   Learn more about how growth ratings are generated and create charts that compare schools' growth ratings based on measures such as poverty levels, racial composition and homelessness at the (choose "public access").  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is updating its website to make information more user-friendly, including a performance dashboard that is currently incomplete. Preview the new site , and offer feedback and suggestions using a form on the site or by contacting the communications department.

In Part 3 of "Making The Grade," we'll look at how CMS is using a new equity policy to try to close achievement and opportunity gaps among schools.

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.