When A is for affluent, NC school grades only damaging

What would we think if state legislators created an A-F school grading system based on student family income, giving A’s and B’s to the schools that serve the fewest poor students while tagging the highest-poverty schools with D’s and F’s? No doubt most North Carolinians would reject such a plan.

Unfortunately, the current A-F grading system produces the same result. In the program’s first year, out of 325 district and public charter schools statewide serving at least 85 percent low-income students – our state’s highest-poverty schools – none received an A, and only two received B’s.

At the other end of the spectrum, out of 222 schools statewide serving less than 25 percent low-income students, none received an F and only one received a D. Nearly 90 percent of those schools received A’s or B’s.

School grades are based on two factors:

▪ School Achievement Score (80 percent of overall grade) – the percentages of students proficient on end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, graduation rate and college and workplace readiness measures.

▪  School Growth Score (20 percent of overall grade) – improvement on the school achievement score factors from one year to the next.

These factors are combined to create a single “School Performance Score” of 0-100, which results in a grade for each school on a 15-point scale (85-100 is an A, 70-85 a B, etc.)

At the start of this year, North Carolina was one of 15 states and one of eight states in the Southeast to have adopted an A-F grading system. Many other states, including those with the longest-standing and best-regarded A-F systems, including Florida, place a greater emphasis than we do on growth. The reason is simple: School achievement scores reflect single point-in-time test results over which schools have far less control than growth, which is designed to measure the impact schools and teachers have on students’ academic progress.

So what should be done to fix our A-F grading system?

1 Adjust the formula by increasing the weight given to growth.

Several bills filed this session would improve the grading formula by increasing the weight placed on growth or adding other factors linked to improved academic performance. Unfortunately, many legislators seem content to keep the current formula at least temporarily. Doing so will achieve consistency while ignoring systemic flaws that are widely recognized even among proponents of A-F grades. The sooner legislators act to address the formula’s flaws, the sooner we can start amassing consistent and reliable data under a grading system that’s more deserving of our attention.

Would changes to the formula eliminate the impact of poverty on school grades? Not by a long shot. However, moving to a formula that weights growth at 50 percent or higher would blunt the impact somewhat by tagging lower percentages of high-poverty schools with D’s and F’s. And more importantly, it would put more of the grade’s weight into factors over which schools have more control.

2 Analyze and publicize lessons learned from schools that are beating the odds by earning high grades while serving high percentages of low-income students.

Our grading system is so strongly linked to nonschool-based factors that it might have little to teach us about what can be done at the school level to improve student outcomes. However, even in this imperfect system, we can learn valuable lessons from the schools that are succeeding in spite of the grading formula’s systemic biases. In particular, it is worth examining school-level practices at schools that earned high grades while serving high percentages of low-income students.

3 Target supports to the lowest-performing schools

Under any system, school grades beg the question of what the state plans to do to address persistently failing schools. In one view, the answer begins and ends with transparency and resulting parent choice. Some also believe that the presence of school grades will create a competitive atmosphere that will push failing schools to improve.

A more complete response is to acknowledge that, particularly in a system where school grades correlate strongly with poverty, persistent low grades signal a need for intensive support rather than abandonment or simple reliance on market dynamics. Support might include programs that attract and retain excellent teachers in D and F schools and autonomies granted to school leaders at persistently low-performing schools over such crucial variables as school calendars, staffing, budgets and curricular decisions.

These three steps could go a long way to making A-F school grades a way to help our schools succeed, rather than simply identifying those that serve students from low-income families with no meaningful action or support behind it.

Joe Ableidinger is senior director of Policy & Programs for the Public School Forum of North Carolina.