Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: New grading scale flunks

Been down so long it looks like up to me.

The title of Richard Farina’s rowdy comic novel sprang to mind when I saw the state’s first A-F public school grades, confirming that Durham would be looking up once again.

Of Durham’s 53 public schools, 29 received either a D or an F. And if a revised point scale in effect for the current school year had been in effect, more schools would have fallen into the D-F zone.

The public schools are jerked around incessantly by one quality metric or another, so much and so often that you need a program to follow what’s happening. The same can be said of non-stop testing for achievement and academic growth.

Sometimes you have to ponder the effects of this churn on the kids, who have become little more than bots in the testing and evaluation regime. Bless her heart, Miss Dove would flee in terror.

Bert L’Homme, in his first year as superintendent of Durham Public Schools, is right when he says the school grading method is unfairly weighed toward student performance and against the other side of the scale, academic growth.

L’Homme isn’t alone. Other superintendents and several school boards across the state have come down hard on the A-F yardstick.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools rode the crest of the wave this year with the highest overall ratings, but even that system’s board is calling for 50-50 weighting of performance and growth.

Fads in America usually originate in California and move westward with the winds, but A-F grading is an exception: This trend came out of Florida in the late 1990s, when Jeb Bush was governor.

North Carolina should have let this one pass. While the simplification inherent in a grading school seems like a no-brainer, the translation from theory to practice is anything but simple.

In fact, it can be downright destructive to D or F schools, even though they might be making strong progress on academic growth – a measure that can speak to the day louder than student performance.

The ultimate objective of education, or so it seems to me, is inculcating students not only with information, but also with an immeasurable ability to think critically. Teaching to the test for high performance doesn’t do that, but a school that emphasizes academic growth as well as performance is far more likely to turn out intellectually rounded graduates.

The curious, questing mind is the greatest gift of nature and nurture. It’s been said time and again that learning shouldn’t be confined to the schools, that a child’s home environment is just as important – maybe more important.

It’s telling then, but entirely predictable, that the inaugural year of North Carolina’s school grades revealed a strong correlation between poverty and wealth.

Children in poverty usually get little if any off-the-clock learning in their environment, where poverty reproduces itself generation after generation.

On the other side of the tracks, children in middle-class and above homes usually have parents who value education and appreciate learning as a holistic enterprise. Asians, for example, excel in this.

If we’re lucky, school grading is just another education fad that will fade away like the morning mist. It is capable of enormous, unfair injury to schools’ reputation, so much so that it deserves to collapse under the weight of public opposition.

When even grading’s supporters admit that a D or F school can be a place of academic growth, the dichotomy swallows the argument for it. A pox on the whole idea, say I.

Bob Wilson, longtime journalist and educator, lives in southwest Durham.