Every year, parents in my neighborhood ponder moving to different school districts as they anxiously await the results of multiple magnet and charter lotteries and private school applications. Why? Because they don’t want to send their children to what they perceive as our “bad” neighborhood school.
This so-called bad school is a school with exceptional programs into which out-of-district parents are trying to get their children. It’s a school with a strong PTA and hard-working principal.
And as of this week, it is also a school with a bad report card.
Yesterday, North Carolina rolled out its new grading system for its public schools. Each school received a grade from A through F, intended to provide parents with a quick snapshot of how their kid’s school is doing. The grade scale has been met with a mixed reception: some claim it makes parents’ jobs easier by helping them choose schools. The reality is, this is just another way our school systems are being undermined by laws that overemphasize test scores.
A policy brief from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit which primarily advocates for the privatization of education (founded by former Florida governor Jeb Bush), states the “A–F school accountability system recognizes and rewards success. It exposes failure and it does this in a way that any parent who has ever seen a report card can instantly understand.”
But what a parent won’t understand is how that grade is calculated. And a lot of people have a problem with the standards North Carolina uses to calculate the ratings.
Say your neighborhood school receives a D. You get a letter in the mail, because part of the law states that if your school rates a D or an F, you get to hear about it. How did the statisticians arrive at their calculation? Two words: test scores.
Eighty percent of the report card grade is based on school performance (i.e. achievement scores on end-of-the-year tests and exams) and 20% is based on student growth (how a student did last year versus how they did this year).
As a metric, however, many teachers and administrators say that growth is a far better indicator of school and student performance.
“Growth is the key measurement,” according to Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District Superintendent Tom Forcella, who spoke out against the new system.
In addition to not valuing growth as a measure of success, the emphasis on test scores over growth will penalize schools with larger numbers of low-income students as likely recipients of failing grades.
In my neighborhood, as in many, this will lead to parents taking even more aggressive measures to “opt-out” of their districted school, creating a cascade effect whereby the test scores skew even lower while the school continues to be perceived as a failure when, in fact, it may be making great strides.
And if you check out the source of A-F school report cards, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, you will see that this is all part of their agenda. School choice, opting out, school vouchers, charters: they offer a choice, to be sure, but by tanking the ratings of our local schools. These other options take away the most convenient, local option. What would happen if we all just sent our children to the school for which they were districted?
Now I’m not saying that, when the time comes, I won’t be one of those anxious parents in my neighborhood talking about what the best school choice will be for my children. But when I make that choice, I want to make an informed decision, and North Carolina’s new grading system does not provide the information that I need to know.
Melissa Geil is a freelance writer and English teacher. Although originally from New York, she moved to North Carolina the first time for college (go Tarheels), and now she is back to stay. She enjoys reading, hiking, and gallivanting around the triangle with her family.