Fact Check: Media Get It Wrong On School Grading Scale

Mar 6, 2019

On WFAE’s weekly fact check of North Carolina politics – we look at facts spread not by politicians, but by media outlets. It involves the grading scale used to assess how schools, not students, are performing.

Those A, B, C grades are meant to provide a look at how a school’s administration and teachers are doing by calculating academic achievement and growth.

A House bill, supported by Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, aims to permanently grade schools on a 15-point scale. In other words, scores of 85 and above would be an A. However, several media outlets, gave the impression it was aimed at students, not schools.

Paul Specht of the Raleigh News and Observer joins “Morning Edition” host Lisa Worf to set the record straight.

Lisa Worf: So Paul, it sounds like the media blew it on this one.

Paul Specht: They did blow it and their misleading headlines were spread pretty far — not just from local TV stations here in Raleigh, but beyond to Charlotte and to Fox News. [It's even spread] to Seth Meyers, the late-night television show host.

Worf: So, we're talking anything on the range of misleading to outright wrong here.

Specht: That's right. The bill uses words like "grade," "scale," "performance," but those are all in relation to how schools themselves are doing. But there is nothing in this bill that says anything about students. In fact, I don't believe the word "student" is in their once. 

But if you look at many of the headlines that were spread by WNCN, WCNC, WRAL, they say the bill would change school performance grades. Most people read that and their mind goes to, you know, what their student's report card. They think, oh they might be easier for my kid to get an "A." And people across the board thought that.

There's a man named Andrew Siciliano — he hosts a show about NFL football. He tweeted, "North Carolina wants to give your kid an "A" with an 85. Embarrassing." And so, you know, if you're just a passerby to North Carolina politics or education news, then that's the impression you were left with, with a lot of these headlines.

[Related Content: Fact Check: Cooper's State Of The State And Who Saw Early Vote Totals In Bladen County]

Worf: So you really see how that spirals from misleading to all these pronouncements that are completely wrong.

Specht: That's right. And currently, North Carolina law already grade schools on a 15-point scale. When the school grading system was first introduced, it was supposed to be a 10-point scale but that was never implemented. Every year since then they've passed waivers to grade the schools on a 15-point scale. So, this bill doesn't change anything about the current school grading system that's not already currently done. And it doesn't apply to students. That's where so many people got it wrong.

Worf: On to another fact check — this one involving politicians. Last month, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Democrat Cheri Beasley to take the chief justice seat on the state Supreme Court that was vacated by Republican Mark Martin. Critics, including many Republicans and Justice Paul Newby himself, said it was partisan and that by tradition, the most senior justice gets it. Is that true?

Credit PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL SPECHT

Specht: There is some validity to the argument that North Carolina has appointed its senior justice. However, we thought we would go deeper because when the North Carolina Republican Party claimed that it was a "nonpartisan tradition" to appoint the senior associate justice, we wondered have there been other times where the governor appointed someone that was not of his own political party?

Specht: So we look back 50 years all the way back to 1969. And we found that in six out of the seven appointments that happened, he did appoint the senior associate justice. So that has some validity. However, in seven out of the seven appointments — the governor appointed someone from his own party.

In other words, if the governor was a Democrat and the justice who was leaving was a Republican, he replaced him with a Democrat. If there was a Republican governor and a Democrat left the Supreme Court justice seat, the Republican replace the Democrat with a Republican.

And so while the Republicans have this talking point that yes there was a trend of appointing the senior associate justice, it's more accurate to say that the tradition has been more partisan. In no case in the last 50 years has the governor appointed a chief justice that wasn't from his own party.

So by calling on Gov. Cooper to appoint Paul Newby as the chief justice, they were asking him to do something that no governor has done since 1969 — if not even further back. So we rated that a "mostly false."

Worf: What was the one case where a governor did not appoint the most senior justice to the court besides Cooper?

Specht: Republican Gov. Jim Martin. That happened in 1986 when Martin skipped over a Democrat to pick a Republican. 

Paul Specht will be joining WFAE’s Morning Edition every Wednesday to Fact Check North Carolina news. If you have any claims you want the PolitiFact team to check out, you can email them at factcheck@newsobserver.com.