The large, orange-red D-minus dominates the web page, leaping out from the white background. I’m looking at a so-called “Report Card” for Shamrock Gardens Elementary School, prepared by a lobbying group known as The Carolina Campaign for Achievement Now, or CarolinaCAN. As everyone who has ever gotten a report card knows, a D-minus is a mark of shame, a hair shy of utter failure. You get a D-minus in a class when you had no idea what you were doing or when you barely tried at all.
Our school does not deserve that kind of grade.
Normally, I wouldn’t pay much attention to the assessment of a group brought in from outside the state, which has a single staff member and whose idea of “research” seems to be a slick and shallow repackaging of readily available public information.
However, the issue of the letter grade is a serious one because the North Carolina legislature is revving up a similar program, with far more damaging ramifications. State A-F grades will give an official “stamp” to such judgments and by law must be prominently displayed.
Shamrock Gardens is a textbook case of the problems with this system.
In spring 2012, the year that CarolinaCAN used to “grade” our school, my son had had been at Shamrock Gardens for six years.
In 2006, when Parker started kindergarten, Shamrock had no PTA and few enrichment activities, and it faced federal sanctions for failing to meet No Child Left Behind requirements in four straight years.
By 2012, Shamrock had become a thriving, sanction-free school with vibrant extracurriculars, strong parent involvement programs and a growing number of middle-class families who had once shunned the school but who had begun to see it as a good place for their children. My son had enjoyed six years of a marvelous education, provided by a skilled and dedicated staff who constantly went above and beyond for their students. I’d be happy to match the group of teachers who taught our 2012 testing grades against any in the state.
Still, Shamrock continued to face plenty of challenges. In 2012, 95 percent of our tested population qualified as economically disadvantaged. Nine percent of the tested students had diagnosed disabilities, and 16 percent had yet to master English. At least 10 percent were homeless at some point during the year. Fewer than 1 in 3of the fifth-graders had been at Shamrock for all six years of elementary school, and some students had been at the school only a few months before they took the tests.
These challenges made raising aggregate test scores tough. While the majority of our low-income students thrived, others struggled, especially those whose family instability meant frequent moves from school to school. The reading test posed particular problems because success often depended on navigating the test-makers’ verbal tricks, an especially difficult task for English language learners.
The result: In 2012, approximately 58 percent of the state tests our fifth-graders took were scored at or above grade level (and this was before the state Board of Education’s recent decision to significantly raise the bar for testing proficiency). On CarolinaCAN’s grading scale, which closely resembles that used for classroom grades, a 58 translates to a D-minus.
But getting 58 percent of a challenged and often transient student body to grade level or above is a meaningful accomplishment. It should not be equated to getting a grade of 58 on an exam or in a class. A high-poverty school with a 58 percent proficiency rate needs to improve. Neither its teachers nor its students deserve to be shamed with a D-minus.
The purveyors of the A-F grading system argue that the “newfound transparency” of the system will spur teachers and parents to work harder to improve their schools. I predict a far different scenario.
State-mandated A-F grades will intensify the focus on the narrow range of material that standardized tests cover, compounding the well-documented damage that this kind of testing has done to American education. And because they will paint a portrait that is often far more negative than reality, they will further undercut confidence in North Carolina public schools and teachers. Most families will not try to improve schools labeled with D-minuses. Rather, they will do their best to avoid them.
It is perhaps not surprising that the proponents of A-F grading, including the American Legislative Exchange Council and CarolinaCAN’s parent organization, 50CAN, are also prominent backers of expanding charter schools and vouchers. One way to build support for charters and vouchers, of course, is to convince parents and politicians that public schools are worse than they actually are.
If our legislators truly want to help our public schools improve, they should abandon their harmful plans for A-F grading and turn their efforts to measures that will make a positive difference in children’s educational experiences. They should restore class-size caps, reduce the number of time-consuming standardized tests and raise teacher pay to more respectable levels.
Pamela Grundy of Charlotte is co-chair of MecklenburgACTS.org, a grassroots group working on issues of equity and excellence in Mecklenburg County public schools.