Schools bracing for their report cards

Posted January 25, 2015
Updated February 5, 2015

— 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.


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  • juliomercado Feb 4, 2015

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    The only reason they get F's is that there is no lower grade. The GA has done a lot of things right, but when it comes to education, their ONLY good call was raises last year for those newbie teachers.

  • AFVeteran Jan 27, 2015

    Report card for the NCGOP F's across the board. Too bad that don't have Merit Pay they would all be on gov't assistance.

  • jimcricket15 Jan 26, 2015

    I love how the school system ALWAYS have excuses. This is nothing new. Blame the measurment system. They used to blame NCLB. I don't recall when it was done, but the DEMS pulled this State out of measuring against the CAT. Of course the State measuring system was blamed. Once those excuses are used up, then it is blame the parents, blame the kids, blame the legislature. What is a real shame is that there is ZERO accountability in the Public System. Zero. Charters are an exception. When they do poorly they are shut down. Not so the traditional schools. They remain open serving as a massive vacumn cleaner of dollars.

  • ohmygosh Jan 26, 2015

    2-3 years ago, I would have gasped at your comment and called it crazy....but now it seems that our legislature wants to make it look like public schools and teachers can do nothing right.

    Turnabout is fair play. After all the teachers has spent lots of time and press saying how bad a job the legislators and gov't is doing in their opinion.

  • gopack10 Jan 26, 2015

    I work in a school that will likely have a F on the front door. I am not a teacher but I see a lot of great things happening at this school from a lot of really good teachers. Can't say I agree with this new procedure but it is what it is....

  • nobodyknow420 Jan 26, 2015

    I love it when students are expected to do well on tests, because the tests are a representation of how well the student understands the material. But, then, all of the sudden, when a school is tested and obtains a letter grade, it's suddenly all about just "student growth" and not about test scores haha? WOW !

  • kellyshaw1971 Jan 26, 2015

    Being poor (financially) has very little to do with scholastic achievement. Let's stop kidding ourselves. Being poor in terms of home culture of education, home culture of hard work and discipline is responsible for scholastic underachievement. So let's not insult the financially poor. Some of the poorest children around the world perform the best because their (poor) parents insist on academic excellence and don't make or take excuses. Fix the parents and you will fix the schools.

  • justabumer Jan 26, 2015

    Someone needs to find a way to grade the quality of the parenting the students receive.

  • JustOneMoreGodThanThee Jan 26, 2015

    "The students already spend so much time being tested that there is little time left to actually learn anything."I guess we arent supposed to notice that for all this time allegedly spent on the test there doesnt seem to be much of an impact on the test scores.

    Apparently "bracing for report cards" really means "thinking up implausible excuses to avoid taking responsibility"

  • justabumer Jan 26, 2015

    This is what happens when people who know nothing about operating an effective educational system make decisions affecting those systems. The students already spend so much time being tested that there is little time left to actually learn anything. That is now likely to get even worse as the teachers are forced to concentrate so much on the material which will be on the test that no other learning will take place. And the students will be the losers.