Politics & Government

Some say NC school performance grades are unfair. Lawmakers may change them.

Updated on July 10 and July 22

North Carolina lawmakers may now be willing to change the system that’s resulted in every public school getting a single letter grade from the state to evaluate their academic performance.

The state Senate unanimously voted on July 9 to pass a bill that directs State Superintendent Mark Johnson and the State Board of Education to make recommendations by February on whether the A-F school performance grading system should be revised. Critics of the system say that the current focus on passing rates on state exams has unfairly stigmatized high-poverty schools as being failing.

“We think about F schools and we think about the stigma that it often puts on not only the students but the community,” said Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “We have to do a better job because many of the Realtors who come and they find out here’s an affluent neighborhood but here’s a school that’s an F school.

“They don’t want to move in this neighborhood. So we must do a better job when it comes to putting grades on schools.”

House Bill 362 also would make permanent the 15-point scale that’s been used to issue grades to schools since the system began. This means an A is 85 to 100.

Some television stations had previously incorrectly reported that lawmakers were looking at changing the way student grades are given.

The House voted 112-4 on July 10 to concur with the legislation. Governor Roy Cooper announced on July 22 that he had signed the bill into law.

The legislation marks the first time the Senate has shown a willingness to consider changes to the A-F grading system since it was put into law as part of the 2013 state budget. Republican legislative leaders have said the letter grades help parents know how their children’s schools are doing, but critics say schools are being “stigmatized” by the state’s “faulty’ A-F school grading system.

Each school’s letter grade is calculated from student testing scores, which account for 80% of the letter grade, and the measured growth of students. The growth component — which tracks improvement of students — makes up 20% of each school’s grade.

Since the beginning of the program, each year’s results have shown a strong correlation between the wealth of student families and school grades.

For instance in the 2017-18 school year, among schools where more than 81 percent of students come from low-income families, 69% of the schools received a D or F. In schools where the poverty rate is less than 20%, only 1.7 percent of schools received a D or F.

For the past few years, the House has passed bills to modify how the grades are determined, such as giving more weight to growth scores. But the legislation has died in the Senate.

But this year the Senate included the study of revising the grading system in the House bill making the 15-point scale permanent. Sen. Rick Horner, a Nash County Republican, said at a legislative committee meeting last month that they want to make sure people “can feel confident that these schools are being graded on a fair manner.”

Waddell tried Tuesday to go a step further with an amendment to revise the grading system to be 51% achievement and 49% growth.

“No one wants to attend a D or F school and I don’t know if we realized it but what we can see is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and school grades and that shouldn’t be,” she said.

But her amendment was tabled by a 28-21 vote.

“We have a myriad of ideas on how this should be done, and one of my arguments was we shouldn’t be so quick to tell our state how to do this,” Horner said. “We’re going to hear from the state board, and they’re going to come back and make a recommendation about the weightings.

“We’re going to try take a little of the legislative mandate out and let’s get their recommendations before we make a decision.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.