Flawed Grades Punish Poverty

sad-girl-in-schoolNorth Carolina’s new school report cards debuted with the apprehension, confusion, and dismay that many of us remember from bringing home our own grades. Now, schools are waiting to see if legislators will curve the grades or change the scale altogether.

Back in February, each North Carolina school received – for the first time – a letter grade from A to F. More than 65% of NC schools received a C or better, but only about 5% received A’s.

A school’s grade was calculated using a formula of 8% school achievement (scores on standardized tests, end-of-grade tests, ACT scores, etc.) and 20% growth (how student performance changed over time as compared to the typical rate of growth for the state overall).

This year the grades were calculated on a 15-point scale, so schools received A’s if they scored between 85-90 and F’s if they scored below 39. Under the current law, that grading scale is set to shift to a 10-point scale next year.

These report cards, ostensibly designed to give parents an easy way to understand how their child’s school is doing, are decidedly flawed. There is a high correlation between failing grades and poverty, and the academic improvements in schools with low-income students are undervalued.

In fact, an analysis by N.C. Policy Watch found that of the nearly 30% of schools receiving letter grades of D or F, almost all of them are designated as high poverty schools with at least 50% of their students receiving free or reduced lunch.

“The only thing these grades tell us is where our poor children go to school and where our rich children go to school,” said Lynn Shoemaker, the  Issues and Advocacy Director at Women AdvaNCe and a 23-year veteran public school teacher representing the advocacy group Public Schools First NC, according to NC Policy Watch.

The grades are another insult for North Carolina’s schools and teachers, already inundated with a myriad of tests and curriculum requirements while facing an ongoing shortage of resources. A number of legislative proposals attempt to address some of the weaknesses of the grading system. Here’s a quick run-down:

  • House Bill 358 would keep the 15-point grading scale for two more years, providing consistency and giving schools more time to adjust. According to The News & Observer, if a 10-point scale had been used this year, more than 70% of the state’s schools would have gotten D’s or F’s. This bill passed the House on March 31st and has the best chance of becoming law this year. There is a companion bill in the Senate, S450.
  • Wake County Sen. Josh Stein introduced legislation to change the grading formula to 40% achievement and 60% growth to better account for improving schools.
  • Rep. Tricia Cotham, a former teacher and assistant principal, would take the changes even further, shifting the formula to 20% achievement and 80% growth. Her bill has been referred to the Education Committee.
  • Another bill would change the grading system to give schools two grades – one for achievement and one for growth. Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam is a fan of this bill. WRAL quoted him as saying: “I like mashed potatoes and gravy and I like Jell-O, but I don’t like my Jell-O mixed up in my mashed potatoes and gravy.”

The future of the more substantive legislative proposals is murky, but there are even larger issues begging to be addressed. Without any funding earmarked to help schools with failing grades or address the challenges they face, what is the real purpose behind the report cards? Is this yet another attack on public schools, designed to boost the “school choice” movement?

In an interview with N.C. Policy Watch, North Carolina Association of Educators Executive Director Mark Jewell said a failing grade amounted to a “scarlet letter,” and Rep. Cotham asked during hearings, “Is this data for shaming purposes?”

Cabarrus County Schools’ Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Jason VanHeukelum, penned a powerful piece in response to the grading system.

“The narrative that public schools are failing must stop. The narrow focus on testing has taken away our vision for the whole child and we have developed an obsession that ultimately deceives us of knowing true success or failure.”

We can’t and shouldn’t lose sight of these larger issues that carry serious implications for schools and for our students.

Sara LangSara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.




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