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North Carolina school grades: Don’t get lost in the noise

By Bob Luebke
Posted Monday, February 9, 2015

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Raleigh, NC - On February 5, North Carolina released A-F grades for all traditional public and charter schools. News outlets have been all over the story and pundits are angling to put a spin on what is expected to be a tough day for many schools. For the past several days, public school officials have been bracing themselves for what they expect to be a torrent of bad publicity and questions.

Officials at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction have been coaching local officials about how to explain results. If they didn’t see a need they wouldn’t do so. A quick look at the results says the expectations weren’t far off. There will be endless analysis and review of the data. In my view, parents and anyone else who cares about education shouldn’t get lost in the weeds. We should all calmly figure out what the results mean.

Most of the criticism about school report cards centers on the methodology. We can argue ad nauseam about the methodology used to develop grade scores. Most critics believe achievement scores are weighted too heavily (80 percent) and growth scores not enough (20 percent). There is some sentiment among education leaders in the legislature to make adjustments in the current system. That’s debatable. I don’t think such changes would have significantly changed relative scores.

No methodology will be perfect. Every design has limitations. That said, having school grades is better than not having grades. If schools feel otherwise, they can do as Wake County and Forsyth County Schools have done and provide parents with additional information or report cards. The goal is transparency and if the process encourages the disclosure of pertinent information, it’s all the better.

The education establishment and much of the left criticizes school grades as unfair. Yesterday an article by Lindsey Wagner on the NC Policy Watch web site criticized the grades as another way to punish poor schools. Critics assert A-F grades track with income level. High-income areas get better scores, while poorer areas get the lower scores. So what if anything do we learn? How does this help the schools improve?

Critics of the new A-F grades say the scores only punish poor schools and don’t help them improve. Such thinking is misguided. The purpose of school grades is to improve transparency. They give parents more information about school performance and the quality of their schools. A-F grades are merely a tool to encourage transparency.

However, there are other problems with methodology. You hear no one discussing last fall’s decision by the State Board of Education that determined students who scored at Level 3 proficiency were determined to meet grade level proficiency. This moved the goal posts closer for many students who otherwise wouldn’t have been deemed proficient. It is a massive dumbing down of the curriculum at a time when we’re constantly told test scores are lower because of the new, higher, Common Core Standards. Regrettably, the decision to adopt the new 10- point grading scale facilitates the entire process.

Such thinking is misguided. The left thinks school quality and student achievement tracks with income. Hence, to them, the only way to remedy the issue is additional spending. Of course, such thinking says nothing about the additional spending already incurred to address the educational needs of special populations.

Now is not the time to cite the abundant research which refutes such thinking. While money is not unimportant, our emphasis should be on spending money effectively., a web site dedicated to evaluating every school district in the country, found plenty of evidence in North Carolina as well as nationally that said the best schools do not always spend the most. In a July 2014 paper, Ulrich Boesa of the Center for American Progress shows that return on educational investment is not merely related to dollars spent but other factors.

Of course we’re not saying money is unimportant in the school achievement equation. But educational success is dependent on other variables as well, such as school culture, quality teachers, effective administration and involved parents. If these other factors are not properly aligned, money will have a limited impact.

So now that school grades have been released, now what?

The legislation requiring grades be assigned to each public school does not identify any sanctions or consequences for schools with D or F grades. Historically, what happens with low-performing schools is they receive additional support and intervention. In the case of a charter school, if it’s failing academically, it will be closed. Why that option is not applied to failing public schools is a question that lacks a thoughtful response.

Barring the ability to enroll in a charter school, or having the resources to access a private school, students in failing public schools are trapped. They lack options. Such realities are unacceptable. We can only hope they spur the development of other educational options such as charter schools, online education, vouchers, education savings accounts and the like.

Unless students are educated by another means, North Carolina is required to provide all children a “sound, basic education.” Many of our public schools provide that and more. However, we must be honest and address the schools that fail to do so.

Any government that traps students in underperforming schools fails its citizens. How do we solve these problems? The last several decades are littered with state and federal efforts to do just that. No matter the size of the effort, the efforts had one thing in common: they failed. We already know many ways to improve student achievement and the quality of our schools. Placing quality teachers in every classroom will help, as will expanding school choice options.

If we fail to take serious action to address these concerns, the release of school report cards will continue to be a painful day for parents, students and educators.

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North Carolina school grades: Don’t get lost in the noise