Why North Carolina’s letter grade law gets an F

Whatever its stated intent, the 2014 school letter grade law serves one purpose: to continue undermining our system of public schools with negative labels that read “failure.”

Instead of creating laws that would actually improve public education by devoting more resources and support to students, teachers, teacher assistants and classrooms, some legislators continue pushing policies that denigrate public education, encourage the diversion of educational resources from where they are most needed and promote increased racial and economic segregation in our schools. While credible educational research tells us that economically and racially diverse schools provide better educational environments and result in higher test scores and graduation rates – drastically improving the odds of getting a sound basic education as our state constitution requires – these labels sabotage the goal of diverse schools.

The letter grade law is just one more incentive for better resourced parents to abandon struggling schools – and public schools altogether – bringing us closer to the wholesale divestment by political leaders and stakeholders in our public school system.

When the first school grades emerged earlier this year, only the willfully blind could avoid seeing what we already knew: Low student achievement correlates closely to student poverty. And in North Carolina, as in too many other states across the South, poverty is still too often tied to race. With few exceptions, those schools serving disproportionately low-wealth and large black and Latino populations received “D” and “F” grades while those serving majority white populations enjoyed higher grades.

These grades grossly undervalue student growth or progress, as the law gives that measure only 20 percent of the total. At the same time, the law exalts high-stakes testing, with the other 80 percent going to End-of-Grade scores (which correlate highly to socioeconomic status). This results in paradoxically demeaning schools making positive impacts on the lives of students.

In Johnston County, for example, West Smithfield Elementary School, which serves over 75 percent students of color and is exceeding its EVAAS Growth Standard, received a “D” while majority-white West Clayton Elementary did not meet the Growth Standard but got a “C.” Similarly, Wayne County’s Rosewood High, with 70 percent white students, was graded “C” but did not meet growth standards, while School Street Elementary, which in 2013-14 was 96 percent black and 5 percent Latino, exceeded growth standards but received an “F.”

In light of the accompanying expansive charter school and voucher legislation, it seems quite clear that the letter grade law elevates private interests over the public good – furthering a market-based concept that education researchers and common sense tell us should have no place in education. Given the state’s obligation to ensure a sound basic education for every student, these policies should give us all constitutional pause.

It’s difficult to see how labeling our schools “winners” and “losers” does anything but stigmatize the students, teachers and staffs of those receiving low grades and provide a rationale for parents with the means to do so to abandon those schools. Research and experience tell us that such stigma leads to a school’s failure, so why would we accept this tactic as a means to ensure that every public school provides each student a sound basic education?

Instead of amending the letter grade law, get rid of it. Spend that deliberative taxpayer time passing a law that will actually support public education rather than sabotage it.

Elizabeth Haddix is senior staff attorney and Mark Dorosin is managing staff attorney at the Center for Civil Rights at UNC-Chapel Hill.