North Carolina will release its A-to-F school letter grades Wednesday – and they’ll be calculated the same way they were last year. That’s despite widespread, bipartisan concerns that the state’s formula unfairly penalizes high-poverty schools.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict how 2019 school letter grades will look when the state Board of Education releases them: Schools labeled D or F will be high-poverty schools, often serving mostly black and Hispanic students. Those earning A’s will tend to be located in areas where students arrive with more educational advantages.
Those patterns have led a wide-ranging group of lawmakers, educators and advocates to call for change. While the grades are designed to rate the performance of public schools, they often say more about the demographics of the students who attend.
As WFAE reported this summer in a series called Making The Grade, members of the state House and Senate introduced bills that would give more weight to the progress students make, with less emphasis on how many earned grade-level scores.
But while two of those bills passed the House, nothing has gotten out of the Senate. Representative Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, says it’s going to take more time to revamp the way North Carolina tests its kids and then uses those scores to grade teachers and schools.
"This is going to be a continuous issue that will continue to be worked on probably for the next 10 years," Elmore said last week.
Under North Carolina’s grading system, student proficiency on state reading, math and science exams accounts for 80 percent of a school’s letter grade. Because only 20 percent is based on growth, schools that make strong progress with disadvantaged children seldom earn top grades.
Low grades can make it tougher to attract families to a school, while an A can have the opposite effect – even boosting property values in the school zone. That’s according to educators and real estate agents.
Justin Perry, a CMS parent who has lobbied for less standardized testing, says he thinks that’s why it’s so hard to change the system. Perry is co-founder of a Charlotte-based group called OneMeck.
"I think the grading system is something that, it’s used for schools but it’s used also for real estate and other purposes," Perry said. "I think we’ve bought into it so much that there’s a lot of reticence around changing something that literally has guided people’s housing purchases."
The House and Senate did agree on one thing this summer: Ending the yearly drama over which grading scale to use. The state has used a 15-point scale since the grades were introduced in 2013, but the law actually calls for a 10-point scale. That would lead to a big drop in ratings for a lot of schools, and Elmore says lawmakers decided to remove that threat.
"We felt like that was not good policy," Elmore said, "so we kept the 15-point scale and we made it permanent."
School letter grades and other data about school performance will be released at Wednesday's state board meeting. The data will be posted at www.ncpublicschools.org.