Durham schools’ low letter grades, announced Thursday, do not depict the learning that takes place, school leaders said.
Of the 53 schools in the system, all but seven received a C, D or F.
But nearly three-fourths of the schools measured either met or exceeded growth standards, reinforcing Superintendent Bert L’Homme’s assertion that the grades do not reflect students who started behind, but are catching up.
“These schools took their students as they came to them at the beginning of the year, and at the end of the year the students had made at least a year’s worth of progress,” he told the school board this month.
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“We know that we accomplish significant academic growth for our students. We work very hard and teach very hard,” he said. “We think our schools should be graded based more on what they actually accomplished during the school year than on where their students were starting from.”
The letter grades for schools are required under a new state law.
The grades were based 80 percent on a school’s achievement score and 20 percent on students’ academic growth. Proficiency was determined primarily by students’ performance on end-of-year tests, and growth measured how much a student learned and how much progress he or she made during the year.
In North Carolina, 65.4 percent of elementary and middle schools and 88.8 percent of high schools earned a grade of C or higher. The most common score was a C, earned by 41.4 percent of schools; 23.1 percent earned a D and only 6 percent earned an F.
The percentage of Durham schools receiving a C or below was higher than the state average.
The formula unfairly measures the progress of students who started behind, said DPS spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson.
“The formula is flawed. It is an unfair weighting,” she said.
The information released Thursday was not new to school system leaders, who knew the numbers that determined the grades in the fall.
This information has already informed new policies and strategies in place in schools, Pearson said. The letter grades also reflect performance prior to L’Homme’s arrival at the beginning of the school year. He has implemented new strategies that focus on instruction, schools’ learning culture and giving teachers the tools that they need.
“Wherever these students are on their path, we will meet them there. We will work to move them forward,” Pearson said.
Scores across the state correlated with school poverty rates. Only 13 percent of schools that received an A had at least 50 percent of students in poverty. But every school that received an F had a poverty rate at 50 percent or more.
Throughout the Durham school system, almost 65 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, a common poverty indication.
“I think these grades really are just a very good correlation with child poverty and nothing more,” said Ann Rebeck, president of the Durham Council of PTAs.
Rebeck’s two children attend Jordan High School and the Durham School of the Arts. She questioned when more resources will be given to schools with low grades and why the scores were necessary.
“I feel like we’ve seen school funding cut dramatically over the past several years,” she said. “I, as a parent and a public school advocate, am kind of mystified as to why the General Assembly is even doing this. It seems like what it’s doing is undermine schools and demoralize teachers.”
Elementary and middle schools’ achievement scores were based only on test scores. The high school achievement score took into account end-of-course tests, standardized test results, graduation rates and the percentage of students who complete Math III.
This year, school grades were calculated on a 15-point scale, but 2014-15 grades will use a 10-point scale. If used this year, many grades would have dropped.
“I think it would be naive to say, ‘Well this should be a wakeup call to schools. They need to get in there and find solutions,’” Rebeck said.
“They’re going to continue to do the hard work they were doing. They were doing it yesterday, they’re doing it today, and they’re going to continue to do it tomorrow,” she said. “They’re concerned about children of poverty coming into schools with a deficit.”