News-Star: Opinion

Letter grades can help make schools better

We don’t envy Johnston school board members or Superintendent Ed Croom. Soon they will have to explain to anxious, perhaps angry parents why their child’s school received an F grade from the state while another school in Johnston received an A.

Johnston school leaders are fretting about the soon-to-come letter grades partly because they say the grading formula places too much emphasis on test scores. In a story this past week, reporter Nash Dunn noted that 80 percent of a school’s grade will come from test scores; just 20 percent will come from how much students grow in their learning from the start of a school year to the end. Under that formula, Superintendent Croom expects a quarter of all Johnston schools to receive a failing grade of D or F.

We wouldn’t want to answer those parent phone calls either, and we agree that North Carolina places entirely too much emphasis on test scores; to us, what a student knows in fourth or eighth grade matters less than how he thinks. Which is to say a student might know that prices rise in tandem with wages, but can he or she explain why that is?

Still, test scores offer some indication of how well a school is doing in preparing its students for the next grade. So a letter grade based largely on test scores isn’t without value. Which is to say, if only 30 percent of third-graders at a school are reading at or above grade level, that’s a problem that needs addressing.

Of course, the superintendent and his staff already know which schools perform well and which ones come up short on state-mandated testing. But they will forgive parents who can’t fathom how, in North Carolina, a school with a high test-passing rate can fail state expectations while a school with a low passing rate can exceed then.

A letter grade will paint a decidedly clearer picture for parents, and it will, we hope, prompt Johnston schools to redouble their efforts to help those schools that they already know need more attention.