NC public school letter grades reflect wealth of students' families

Second grade Teacher Kathy Etheridge, far right, works with some of her 23 students, like like Kyle Burgess, front-center, Daniel Gomez-Cervantes, white shirt and Caleb Leach, second from right, during a small-group reading time at Vance Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday, February 5, 2015.
Second grade Teacher Kathy Etheridge, far right, works with some of her 23 students, like like Kyle Burgess, front-center, Daniel Gomez-Cervantes, white shirt and Caleb Leach, second from right, during a small-group reading time at Vance Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday, February 5, 2015. clowenst@newsobserver.com

The first letter grades for public schools were released Thursday, showing a strong correlation between grades and wealth and immediately adding to a statewide debate about how public schools in North Carolina are educating children.

Critics of the grading system said the new information was too simplistic and would stigmatize schools. Supporters said it makes it much easier for parents to judge the schools.

Under the new A-to-F grading system, schools with fewer low-income students were more likely to score As or Bs, while high-poverty schools were more likely to get Ds or Fs, according to a News & Observer analysis of statewide data.

The analysis shows:

There were similar patterns across the Triangle.

Officials across the education and political spectrums reacted with a wide range of viewpoints.

Senate leader Phil Berger, the force behind establishing the school grades, said they are an important tool for parents, administrators, policymakers and taxpayers. Not all high-poverty schools scored poorly, Berger noted, and those schools should be studied and used as an example for others.

“I think it should help dispel the notion that just because a school is high poverty that the kids in those schools are relegated to situations where the schools are not going to do well,” said Berger, a Republican who has led the Senate since 2011.

State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey acknowledged that the grades would bring further attention to schools with children who are considered to be in poverty.

“Overcoming the impact of poverty is not a job completed in a few years,” Cobey said. “The impact of poverty is deep and persistent. These children in low-performing schools have no say over their circumstances. But we – the board, the department, the General Assembly – do have a say in what happens next for them.”

Grades for elementary and middle schools are based largely on standardized test results: 80 percent of the school’s letter grade reflects tests taken last year; 20 percent is based on how much students learned year-over-year a measure of student “growth.”

High school grades are based on standardized test results, graduation rates, and the percentage of students who pass Math III.

Many local school leaders opposed the new state law and, before grades were released, districts tried to blunt their impact. On Wednesday night, the Wake County school system released online progress reports for each school that show test results, teacher qualifications and teachers’ thoughts about the school.

“We just don’t think it’s satisfactory,” Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill said of the state’s performance grades. “It doesn’t even come close to informing parents and community what’s really going on in their schools.”

Sarah Simmons, the principal of Vance Elementary School in Garner, said her staff groaned when she told them Wednesday that the school had gotten a C grade. She said they thought that exceeding growth expectations on the state exams would lead to a higher mark.

“I said, ‘Wipe that look off your face,’ ” Simmons said. “ ‘I don’t want to hear it. You know we are so much more than a C and let’s celebrate where we’re at.’ ”

Schools are required to send notices to parents whose children are in D or F schools. The state Department of Public Instruction will provide a form letter, but the Durham district has written its own for principals to send.

“(T)he letter grades only tell a small part of the story of what’s happening at our school,” the letter says, “and this is why: the formula used to calculate these grades puts more priority on a student’s end of year performance, instead of how much academic progress the student makes.”

Durham Superintendent Bert L’Homme warned last month that many schools would receive Ds or Fs.

L’Homme’s warning turned out to be correct. Out of 53 Durham schools, 29 received either a D or F grade.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said the results show the need for high-quality preschool classes, summer academic camps for first- and second-graders, and more resources for struggling schools.

“I know for a fact that resources matter,” she said. “We have seen the results.”

Critics of the grades say that they put too much weight on test results and not enough on student growth.

Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, filed a bill in the state legislature Wednesday that would have student growth account for 60 percent of the grade.

“I believe we should measure what we value – student learning,” Stein wrote on his Facebook page.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, said in a statement that the letter grades are a “recognizable” way of measuring schools.

“The children of North Carolina, regardless of their socioeconomic status, deserve the best education that we can offer,” he said in a statement.

Schools this year got a boost from a bit of legislative grade inflation.

Under the law, grades were calculated on a 15-point scale: 85-100 is an A; 70-84 is a B; 55-69 is a C; 40-54 is a D; and less than 40 is an F. Grades after this year will be calculated on a 10-point scale.

The current method resulted in about 40 percent of schools getting Cs. If the 10-point scale had been used this year, 19 percent would have received Cs, and more than 70 percent would have gotten Ds or Fs.

In Wake County, 86 of 166 schools got an A or B grade, 61 got a C and 19 schools received a D.

In the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, 16 schools got an A or B and the remaining two schools received a C.

Out of 42 Johnston County schools, 14 received an A or B, 20 got a C and eight received a D.

There were no Fs in the Wake County, Chapel Hill-Carrboro or Johnston County systems.

Merrill, the Wake superintendent, said that parents who have concerns about their school’s grade should contact their principal.

“Don’t stop at a headline that says here’s the grade for the school,” Merrill told reporters. “There’s so much more than that going on and our principals are prepared to talk about that.”

Database manager David Raynor and N.C. Insider editor Patrick Gannon contributed.

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