When North Carolina launched its new A-F school grading system in early February, the cacophony of cries that came with it centered on the stigma and inequity inherent in labeling schools with letter grades. High poverty schools whose students are at a disadvantage when it comes to standardized tests received D’s and F’s; wealthier schools generally fared much better.
But beyond the hubbub around the A-F school grading system’s formula, which many agree overemphasizes student performance on standardized tests, there are larger questions about what the A-F school grading system will do for public schools in the long term.
If the new law that mandates A-F school grades offers no path forward for struggling schools and no money or support from the state to help them, then where do we go from here? Is it incumbent upon local school districts to find a way to pull their poorest performing schools up by their bootstraps?
Or are the A-F school grades simply a setup for charter school takeovers and school voucher payouts?
Pressed for answers this week, Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), a supporter of the A-F school grades, told N.C. Policy Watch that in terms of how the A-F school grading formula works, — 80 percent of a grade is based on students’ achievement at one point in time, and 20 percent is based on students’ growth over time — he’s taking a wait-and-see approach, speculating that it will take some time to see if the formula needs tweaking to present a better picture of which schools are helping their students grow and which are not.
“Will the A’s stay A’s, and the F’s stay F’s? And will demographics dictate what that is? We’ll have to watch that,” said Tillman. “If you are making progress, you need to get credit for that. Growth is more important than achievement.”
Tillman says the new A-F school grading model is important for parents to have a quick understanding of which schools are effective at educating students and which are not. “It’s easy to understand,” said Tillman.
Of the nearly 30 percent of North Carolina’s schools receiving letter grades of D or F from the state, almost all of them are designated as high poverty schools, with at least 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds typically perform worse on standardized tests than their wealthier peers.
“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, a 23-year veteran public school teacher representing the advocacy group Public Schools First NC at a press conference held by Senate Democrats after the launch of the A-F school grades.
Tillman said this week he’d be in favor of changing the formula to better account for students’ academic growth over time rather than one-day achievement on tests.
As it stands now, the law stipulates that schools receiving D’s or F’s must send a letter home to parents telling them that they received a low grade. But beyond that, there’s nothing else in the law in the way of repercussions — or support — for schools.
In at least 15 other states around the nation, lawmakers have passed legislation mandating A-F school grades. And in some of those states, the grading models are such that if a school gets a D or F grade multiple years in a row, either the state can take those schools over and hand them off to charter school operators, or families would be eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers to use at private schools.
Is that scenario in the cards for North Carolina?
“It may be a vehicle – charter takeovers,” said Tillman, who said he’s not in favor of school vouchers. “I don’t know, we’ll just have to see. I’m all for charters and choice.”
It’s important to take a step back and explain that North Carolina is no stranger to the accountability movement that has taken K-12 education by storm in the United States.
Back in 1996, the North Carolina legislature passed a law mandating the ABCs of Public Education accountability model. With that program, different designations of schools were developed to indicate how well they were doing in terms of students’ academic success.
The designations included labels that ranged from “low-performing” to “schools of excellence.” And with those designations came support for the neediest schools.
“We couldn’t send teams to all low-performing schools, but we had enough resources to send them out to 15-20 schools,” said Lou Fabrizio, Director of Data, Research and Federal Policy for the NC Department of Public Instruction. “Teams were five or six educators who were on loan from the department to assist those schools that were low-performing.”
When the federal No Child Left Behind law was implemented in 2002, the state had to comply with even more accountability measures. Federal support to turn around low-performing schools trickled down to the state — as did federal mandates that paved the way for families to flee failing schools in search of ones with better track records.
The effect? Increased stratification between the haves and the have-nots. According to Fabrizio, local superintendents were noticing that the families who were taking advantage of public school choice and leaving failing schools were the ones whose students were already doing well on standardized tests. That left a higher concentration of low-performing students at low-performing schools, making it very hard for those schools to pull themselves up toward success.
The accountability model in place before the arrival of A-F school grades continued to evolve over the past decade, and there still exists a system whereby low-performing schools receive help from the state through district and school transformation teams. Around half of the funding for that support comes from federal Race to the Top dollars that are scheduled to dry up soon, hampering the state’s ability to continue to provide interventions to the schools that need it.
If there’s nothing in the law to help schools that receive D’s or F’s, then what are they to do to improve?
“Local school districts are already attacking those schools… Local systems have plans all over the place,” said Sen. Tillman. “It’s up to the locals to figure this out.”
But in North Carolina, unlike many other states, support for public education rests primarily with the state, not localities, thanks to a constitutional mandate.
“When we look at the schools receiving D’s and F’s, many of them are in districts where they do not have a property base that would generate the money necessary for local school districts to ‘do something about it,'” said state superintendent of schools Dr. June Atkinson in response to Tillman’s assertion that locals find a way to improve failing schools.
Atkinson says it’s incumbent on the General Assembly to take action to help move our schools from D’s and F’s to higher grades — and that it should start with more funding for preschool education.
“We’ve got so much research to support that students have a much better chance of being at grade level when they have a quality preschool experience,” said Atkinson, who added that doing more to keep teachers in the classroom and providing that level of continuity in the classroom for students was another critical area to address.
Addressing out-of-classroom factors, many of which are associated with poverty, is also an important endeavor, said Atkinson.
“The General Assembly needs to look at supporting teachers so that they can support their students. We need more psychologists, social workers, nurses and counselors,” said Atkinson.
At the end of the day, Atkinson fears that with the implementation of another accountability model that fails to include resources and support for improvement, students could lose out on learning.
“My greatest fear is that we will have students who could have done well, and we will have missed the chance… Then 10 to 15 years later, North Carolina will pay the price.”