Time to erase NC’s school grading system

Sen. Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the N.C. Senate.
Sen. Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the N.C. Senate. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Grading individual public schools with an A-F system was a bad idea pushed by Phil Berger, the powerful president pro tem of the state Senate and sometime critic of teachers. Berger sold the notion of a grading system talking about “transparency” for parents and as a tool for showing where schools needed help. That may sound good on the surface. But the surface is shallow.

Opponents of the grading system understandably are cynical about the motives, given that Republicans have pushed a voucher system to give taxpayer money to some parents who want to opt out of public schools to send their kids to private ones. GOP lawmakers also have pushed and pushed hard to create more charter schools, which are funded with public money but free of some of the rules that govern conventional public education.

All this, Republicans say, is about providing parents more “choice” in their children’s education.

But the few thousand dollars they provide to lower-income parents who are dissatisfied with public schools and want their kids in private ones won’t allow families to send their children to prestigious private schools that cost $20,000 or more a year. And charter schools are all over the lot in terms of performance. Some are very good. Some are not. But some Republicans seem to be champing at the bit to do everything they can to weaken the conventional public school system that has served North Carolina well for more than a century.

Part of their resentment comes from their dislike for the North Carolina Association of Educators, or NCAE, which has at times criticized Republican actions on public schools. But part of it also is an unwillingness to invest more in public schools at a time when the state budget is growing tighter because of GOP-led tax cuts.

No positive results

The school grading system championed by Berger hasn’t done one good thing for public education. And now legislators are likely to change their original plan to toughen the grading scale and instead keep the current one in place. That scale is based on a 15-point system, with 85-100 an A and 39 and below an F. A higher, 10-point scale was supposed to replace it.

Grades released for the first time this year showed a strong connection between the wealth of a school’s families and the school’s performance. The schools that got D’s or F’s tended to have large numbers of students from poorer families. Had a 10-point scale been used, more that 70 percent of the state’s schools would have gotten D’s or F’s.

Republican lawmakers, of course, don’t want to champion a monumental increase in funding for public schools to improve in particular the ones with lots of kids from lower income families. Nor do they want to do anything to bring average teacher pay up from near the bottom of national rankings, where it remains even after some raises.

Rather, GOP lawmakers are like someone who buys a fixer-upper and wants the carpenter to make it like new without lumber, bricks, mortar or tools.

End the grading

Rather than do all kinds of legislative maneuvering to hold the grade scale where it is, it would be better to do away with Berger’s ill-advised grading system. Or to change the system so grades would be based mostly on how much students have grown in a year instead of overwhelmingly on test scores. That kind of grading would at least be more informative for parents and a better guide for where investment needs to be made.

And it might mean struggling schools could still draw good teachers interested in making a difference, where the potential for growth existed. As it stands, it’s easy to see why good teachers would flee if they worked at schools with the lowest grades.

Unfortunately, Berger’s Senate isn’t likely to go along with that kind of common-sense change. Republicans have traditionally been critics without constructive solutions when it comes to public education. That tradition sadly continues.