Raleigh, N.C. — Paula Trantham figures her phone at Millbrook Elementary Magnet School in north Raleigh will be ringing more than usual on Feb. 5, the date when parents and the public first get a look at new A-through-F letter grades for all public schools in the state.
The grades are meant to give parents a quick snapshot of how a school is performing. But principals such as Trantham and other school administrators say that snapshot is likely to be out of focus because the new grading system will lean more on raw test scores than measures of how much students learn during a year – what is known as "student growth" among educators.
"Our students don't always come to us ready (to learn). We have kindergartners who walk in the door and don't know the alphabet," she said.
So, while Trantham can pile up reports showing students better than expected progress and show off a school that lets students soak up art and music as well as math and English, she knows little of that will be reflected in Millbrook Elementary's grade.
The Department of Public Instruction is not releasing information about how schools did on the new grading scale until Feb. 5, and school administrators have been forbidden from talking about the data behind the grades until then. But schools do know that 80 percent of the grade will be based on "achievement," a measure largely based on how students do on end-of-grade tests. Only 20 percent will be based on growth.
For schools with a high percentage of free and reduced-price lunch students – a shorthand measure for poverty in the student population – those test scores tend to drag for a number or reasons. Students from lower-income families don't begin their academic year with the same advantages of students whose parents can afford outside learning opportunities such as preschool, educational camps or even books for home reading. Roughly 70 percent of Millbrook Elementary's population is enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program.
"We had tremendous growth last year – some of the top in the county – but that's not going to be reflected in our grade," Trantham said. "This is going to be a huge thing for us, and we're probably going to have a huge conversation around it."
Millbrook Elementary will be far from the only place where that conversation is happening. Across the state, school boards and administrators have asked lawmakers to reverse course, saying the scale will unfairly tar schools with a D or an F despite teachers who are helping students master more than an academic year's worth of work over the course of nine months.
"We think our schools should be graded more on what they actually accomplish during the school year and where their students were starting from," Durham Public Schools Superintendent Bert L'Homme said during a county Board of Education meeting Thursday night.
L'Homme says, over the next two weeks, he will go to schools in his district to congratulate them on outstripping state-established goals for student achievement.
"At the same time, I'm going to have to tell them that their school got an F. That does not tell the story of what is happening in our schools. The formula is not fair for our schools," he said.
Lawmakers watching carefully
The idea for the letter grades were part of a 2012 education reform measure put forward by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and championed by the state Senate in 2013. Berger, R-Rockingham, was drawing on a larger national reform movement led by conservatives who have called for "tough medicine" to heal ailing public schools.
"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," reads a policy brief for the Foundation for Excellence in Public Education, a think tank associated with former Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential presidential candidate.
In North Carolina, grades released next week will reflect student performance during the 2013-14 school year. Grades reflecting the 2014-15 school year are due to be released in September.
"Everybody's on pins and needles over it as to what's going to happen, what's going to be the impact," said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who helps oversee the state's education budget. "I'm hopeful that we will get some agreement to re-look at this thing."
Horne said an A-through-F grading scale can be useful for parents, but the current formula does a disservice to both parents and schools. Lawmakers, he said, should make the split between achievement and growth closer to half and half of the calculation.
"In my opinion, (the current system) doesn't properly represent what's going on in a school," he said.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, one of Berger's top lieutenants and the Senate's education point man, said he also has concerns, but he doesn't want to change the growth-achievement calculation yet.
Tillman acknowledges that "high-flying" schools that are "already on top because of demographics, they'll be your A schools." But the new rating scale should be given a chance to work, he said.
"I want to see what it actually shows for two or three years," he said.
In theory, he said, schools that receive D or F grades this February should be able to improve over the course of a few years.
"If that experience shows me they can't, then I would be willing to look at a change," he said.
The debate over grading schools is not happening in a vacuum. Republicans legislative leaders came into office four years ago vowing to address sagging education rates and to remake budgets they viewed as bloated with too many central administrators. The school letter grades were part of a package of educational requirements that included requiring students meet certain reading benchmarks by the end of third grade as well as budget changes under which many schools chafed.
Backers of the grades say they will help parents more than more descriptive designations or complicated comparisons of student performance against state averages.
"Right now, we have labels like 'school of progress.' Those labels don't have a whole lot of meaning to parents," said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation.
The grades, he said, are a form of transparency.
However, Stoops says he is "hesitant" about the current weighting of achievement versus progress. A 50-50 split, he said, would better represent the work schools are doing.
Other critics say the grades are a deliberate swipe at public schools that already struggle with teacher salaries and could prod more parents to seek state-funded vouchers for private schools or look to charter schools.
"I think it will lead to some parents being dissatisfied," acknowledges Tillman. "You may see some move toward charter schools or some toward private schools, but most parents will be willing to hang with it a year or two."
The new grading system could especially complicate matters for magnet schools such as Millbrook Elementary. Those schools hope to attract students from outside their base areas to create a more balanced blend of incomes among families. Magnets work to persuade parents to make their move from their base schools, a sales job that likely gets tougher with a poor letter grade, Trantham said.
Discussions with parents, community expected
North Carolina is not the only state with a grading system for schools. More than 15 states have put them in place over the past decade.
Bush has championed the grading scale he helped pioneer in Florida, and the foundation he started says putting grades on schools spurred improvement.
"Florida had more D and F schools than A and B schools," the foundation said in its report. "Today, there are eight times as many A and B schools as D and F, and the bar for achieving the higher grade has been raised several times."
However, since Bush left office, school administrators in Florida have pushed for a revamp, calling the system "no longer credible." Other states are also seeking revamps. Virginia's legislature began its work this month, and lawmakers there are calling for revisions to the commonwealth's year-old grading system.
While it's too soon to say what North Carolina lawmakers will do, it's fair to say school districts will pressure them to reform the grading scale. Several districts are preparing to release figures that show how their students would perform if growth and achievement were equal parts of the scale. In Durham, the local teacher association and parent teacher association will hold a public meeting the night the grades come out.
Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill said the A-through-F school grades will play a prominent part in his State of the Schools speech, due to be delivered the night before the grades roll out.
No parent, Merrill said, would accept a school report card that just had a single letter grade on it without breaking out how a student did in various subjects. Neither, he said, should they accept a letter grade that doesn't reflect the different facets of how a school operates.
"Parents know what's going on in their schools. I don't think they need a single grade to tell them," Merrill said, calling the idea that parents can't digest a broader amount of information "insulting."
He said he was less concerned about how parents might react than how pundits and policymakers might use the grades as part of the broader public education debate.
"The shame might be some of the external folks, who don't understand what goes on in our schools on a daily basis, will take that measure and run away with it and use it for whatever agenda," he said.