COVID Gives North Carolina a Chance to Scrap a Bad Grading Policy

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September 13, 2021

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COVID Gives North Carolina a Chance to Scrap a Bad Grading Policy

By Keith Poston

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Editor’s Note: This editorial was published in the News and Observer on September 13, 2021.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent signature on a bill that includes a waiver of school performance grades for 2020-21 has opened an unexpected window of opportunity.

North Carolina has produced school performance reports in some form for two decades. The current system using standardized test scores to assign each school an A-F letter grade started in the 2013-2014 school year. Since then, WakeEd Partnership, along with many educators and education policy experts, have pointed out that such a letter grade system does little more than measure poverty and stigmatize those who serve high percentages of low-income families.

When the pandemic closed schools for a the final third of the 2019-2020 school year and disrupted the entirety of 2020-2021, the General Assembly and Governor Cooper did the right thing to follow the federal guidance and waive the state’s requirement to produce performance data using the troublesome A-F grading scale.

This pause is a perfect time to scrap it once and for all.

From the outset, the letter grades system for school performance has been flawed. While the A-F scale is a simple and familiar system that is easy for the general public to understand, how those grades are calculated was bad from the start.

The scores use two components of state End-of-Grade and End-of-Course testing known as achievement and growth. The former measures test scores and the latter measures how much a student gained academically in one school year. Achievement makes up 80 percent of the score while growth makes up 20 percent.

Educators will tell you the real measure of student success is how far a student advances during the school year – the 20 percent growth factor – not the 80 percent based on achievement, a single end of grade test score.

The real injustice of the current system is that schools can post exceptional growth scores, even among low-achieving students, and still be labeled “underperforming”. That alone undermines the hard work by the students, parents, and school staff.

On top of those problems, the low-scoring schools are overrepresented in areas of high concentrations of child poverty. While poverty and its effect on education outcomes is well documented and has no simple solution, it’s a common-sense change to stop identifying high-poverty schools as failing.

The impact of this failing label is the lower-scoring schools are more difficult to recruit top staff into, especially exceptional principals since their pay is tied to the school’s performance. This has led to higher staff turnover and loss of experienced teachers.

The easy path is to take any of several suggestions floating around before the pandemic such as making growth and achievement equally weighted in the same type of single grade formula as there is now or by splitting the two measures apart to generate two separate A-F grades for growth and achievement. Those ideas have merit, but, as mentioned, they are still problematic.

WakeEd has argued previously that school performance reports can be revised and still meet federal and state standards, be easy to understand, and provide a more complete snapshot of a public school’s ability to educate its students. And our organization’s opinion has evolved since then:

First, eliminate the letter grading system in favor of another option. If letter grades are here to stay, start by dropping the F letter grade. Since a D grade is sufficient to qualify for underperforming status, there’s no need to have a grade that equals “under-underperforming.”

Second, report Achievement and Growth separately on a three-tier scale of: “Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Needs Improvement.” These terms are already used in other state and federal performance measures, including the principal pay scale. Any school needing improvement in both categories qualifies as underperforming to access existing state and federal resources. Any school that “Needs Improvement” in either category will have some additional oversight at the district level.

Third, and this aligns with the court order in the long-running Leandro school funding case, use the performance data to recruit high-performing teachers and school leaders by offering higher pay and performance incentives to educators with top professional credentials and track records if they take positions at the lowest-performing schools.

In the end, all of the schools that show up as under-performing need additional support, not just a scarlet F painted on their front door. This is a chance to turn a crisis into an opportunity by using this moment to envision and enact a new school accountability method. The state’s leaders can do what’s easy or they can do what’s right.

Keith Poston is President of WakeEd Partnership, a business-backed nonprofit group that supports public schools in Wake County.

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