NC school districts sweating release of performance grades

Exterior view of the new Rolesville High School on Tuesday August 20, 2013 in Rolesville, N.C.
Exterior view of the new Rolesville High School on Tuesday August 20, 2013 in Rolesville, N.C.

Parents, teachers and school districts are steeling themselves for Thursday's first-time release of A-F performance grades for state public schools.

The grades are required under a new law that backers say will make it easy for parents to judge schools. Communities and schools have been planning for weeks to respond to disappointing grades sure to generate parent questions.

Grades for elementary and middle schools are based largely on standardized test results: 80 percent of the grade reflects tests taken last year; 20 percent is based on a measurement of student growth, or how much students learn year-over-year. High school grades are based on standardized test results, graduation rates, and the percentage of students who pass Math III.

Wake Superintendent James Merrill plans to talk about the grades in his State of the Schools speech Wednesday evening.

Durham Superintendent Bert L'Homme warned last month that the county should be prepared for mostly D's and F's, even though some of those same schools exceeded expected growth.

The Durham Council of PTAs and the Durham chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators are meeting Thursday evening to discuss ways to put the grades in perspective for parents.

"The way I look at it is, I wouldn't want somebody judging my child based on a test score," said Ann Rebeck, Durham PTA president.

The Nash-Rocky Mount district asked parents to fill out school surveys as a way to have them put the grades in a larger context, said Superintendent Anthony Jackson.

"They can determine whether their perception of their child's school is the same as the grade," he said.

For this first year, schools are graded 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.

North Carolina is one of 16 states with A-F grading policies for schools, according to the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education. Florida, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, started grading its schools in 1999, and he encouraged other states to follow suit. Virginia is now considering a repeal.

Grading North Carolina schools has been controversial since Senate leaders proposed it in 2012. Supporters argued performance grades would provide transparency, while critics said they would stigmatize schools with high enrollment of low-income students. The fight continued through this winter with school boards around the state passing resolutions calling for a repeal of the law or a delay in implementing it.

With the performance grades looming, some discussions have focused on changing the calculation to put less emphasis on test results and greater weight on student growth.

No immediate changes

Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Senate leader on education issues and sponsor of the original bill calling for performance grades, said changes in the next few years are unlikely.

Tillman said he and other senators want a few years of data to see whether schools with low-income students can improve their grades or if schools with wealthier students fall back if they don't achieve growth. In the meantime, the grades offer parents information about achievement, he said.

The grades "may fall along demographic lines," said Tillman, an Archdale Republican and former public school administrator. "If that's the case, I will be pushing to see some changes."

"I'd rather be in a D school making great growth than in an A school where growth is stagnant," he said. "I know if these kids are growing, there has to be good teaching and good leadership for that to be occurring."

East Garner Elementary made great growth last year, but principal Kimberly Burton is still expecting some parent questions when they see the school's grade. About 49 percent of students passed end-of-grade tests last year.

Burton said parents will get a recorded phone message from her explaining the grades, and will let them know the school is using all the data it has to improve.

"There are always challenges at any school," she said. "We owe it to our students and families and school community to give a comprehensive view of what's happening at our school not based on any one factor."

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