Three Ways to Improve North Carolina School Report Cards

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The recent release of the North Carolina public school performance report cards is a timely reminder that school grading is here to stay, so our state has a responsibility to make sure the formula is adequate and the grading system is equitable.

North Carolina’s current school grading system, often called accountability, falls short in both adequacy and equity, but with a handful of changes in next year’s long session of the General Assembly, the grading system could become a useful tool for public school leaders, parents, and the general public.

The current system uses student performance on End of Grade tests in grades 3-8, End of Course tests in high school, and some additional performance metrics as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA. Student test scores are then averaged using a formula that favors passing rates four times as much as student growth. That average is then simplified into a letter grade A-F based on a 15-point scale. (A=100-85, B=84-70, C=69-55, D=54-40, and F=below 40.) Schools with a D or F grade are considered underperforming and are eligible to receive additional state supports.

Three simple changes could go a long way to making the grading system a better representation of school progress:

  • First, the 15-point scale expires this year and is scheduled to move to a 10-point scale for the 2018-19 school year. The 15-point scale should be permanent.
  • Second, there is no need for an F grade. Since D and F schools are considered underperforming, the only outcome of an F is to reinforce the sense of failure.
  • Finally, fixing the way passing and growth scores are averaged into the performance score to a weighting of 50-50 will show true annual progress.

While passing the annual test shows mastery of that grade’s or course’s content, it doesn’t show progress from one point to another. That is represented by growth, and growth is a measure equally helpful for those students who pass with flying colors as it is for students who don’t pass. Passing scores are very important, but they are not four times as important as growth.

Weighting passing rates equally with growth would change the standing of hundreds of schools; most for the better.

For example, looking at Bugg Elementary in Raleigh, a magnet school off Poole Road in Raleigh, it earned an F for the third year in a row. A recent column by Ned Barnett at the News and Observer (“This Raleigh school unfairly got an F. It merits an A for effort.”) tells the story which the letter grade cannot: Bugg is a school on the move in the right direction.

Proving that requires digging deeper than the letter grade or the score associated with it. So, it’s time for some math.

For the 2017-18 school year, Bugg had a combined accountability score of 38. That’s based on a passing rate of 27.2 percent and a growth score of 80.6 percent. Those scores show that roughly a fourth of students in grades 3-5 passed their End of Grade tests in math and language arts, but four fifths met or exceeded their expected growth targets. That growth number is amazing, and most principals would be dancing through the halls with such high growth.

High growth reflects the hard work teachers, administrators, and support staff put into each and every student’s learning experience for that school year. It is much more significant than achievement. Yet Bugg looks like a failing school because its achievement, or passing rates, are so low.

Here’s how that works. Since achievement is four parts of the score and growth is one part, for a total of five parts, the formula works like this.

  • 2 + 27.2 + 27.2 +27.2 + 80.6 = 189.4
  • 4 / 5 (parts) = 37.88, and rounds to 38.
  • A score of 38 equals an F letter grade.

When achievement and growth are weighted equally (27.2+80.6=107.8; 107.8/2=53.9), Bugg’s score jumps 16 points to 54, rounded to the nearest whole number. A score of 54 is a D, and one point away from a C.

It’s clear that the current grading formula doesn’t reflect the hard work of students and staff at Bugg. Imagine putting in extra effort on a project that results in an improved product only to be told you’re still a failure. That’s what the school grading formula is telling Bugg, despite the school’s excellent growth score.

It’s only going to get worse next year unless the General Assembly makes changes in the 2019 legislative session because the 15-point scale compresses to a 10-point scale for the 2018-19 school year. (A=100-90, B=89-80, C=79-70, D=69-60, and F=below 60). So even if Bugg were to improve to a score of 59 under the current weighting formula, it would still be an F school in next year’s report card score.

Bugg’s not the only school in troubling circumstances with the change to a 10-point scale. Most WCPSS schools could post the same performance score for this school year as last year, and they would move down a grade or two.

In fact, 127 of 183 WCPSS schools would move down one grade next year even if their performance score stayed exactly the same. Only 31 would keep the same letter grade from year to year.

What’s more, 19 schools would fall from a C to an F next year if the scale is compressed from 15 to 10 points. And 46 schools would move from a C to a D and be labeled as underperforming even though they had performed no worse than the previous year. This trend will affect all 115 school districts and charter schools across the state.

There’s two ways for state legislators to fix this; make the 15-point grading scale permanent and adjust the accountability formula so the passing rate and growth rate are weighted equally.

If those conditions were applied to the 2017-18 scores released this month, it wouldn’t necessarily be a wholesale improvement for WCPSS performance. While none of the schools would earn an F grade, there would actually be one fewer school with an A grade. The biggest improvement overall would be the number of “underperforming” schools, grades D or F. That number would shrink from 29 currently to 12 if a 50-50 weighting and a 15-point scale were adopted.

Even though these changes—retaining the 15-point scale, a 50-50 weighting, and eliminating the F grade—wouldn’t result in major performance improvements by WCPSS schools they would go a long way to presenting a more complete and accurate picture of school performance to the general public.

One of the most important objectives of the school performance system is to make it easy for the general public to understand. Using the A-F letter grade system is familiar to most people so it requires little explanation. In fact, most people consider a C grade to be average where anything above is better and anything below is worse. But the difference between an A and an F is not the same as being superb and poor. An F grade means failure. It implies that the school with an F grade is incapable of properly educating its students.

To a casual observer, perhaps a parent considering magnet school options for next school year, that F grade gives the impression that Bugg Elementary should be avoided when the opposite is true.

  • Bugg’s growth score ranks it 51 out of 183 schools. That’s the top 30 percent of all schools in WCPSS
  • Bugg’s growth score is better than 26 schools with a B grade, and square in the middle of all elementary schools.

That information is similarly easy for the general public to understand, but it’s not readily available. While ranking schools this way can be tricky, it’s more detailed than a single letter, and it presents a much better performance assessment than the letter F. And as WakeEd has reported previously, WCPSS produces its own comprehensive performance reports that give more detailed information about school performance and climate.

Ultimately, parents want to know that their child’s school is a good place to learn that also is effectively educating its students. If the primary purpose of school grading is to give parents that information, then it shouldn’t unfairly penalize schools that are making gains. When the 2019 legislative session opens, the General Assembly should consider a bill that would keep the 15-point grading scale, adjust the passing score and growth score weighting to 50-50, and remove the letter F from the grading scale. These changes wouldn’t arbitrarily increase performance scores, but they would eliminate arbitrarily low scores which are damaging to a school’s reputation and undermines the hard work of the educators, students, and parents in those schools.

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