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Senators vote to keep current grading scale for schools; no action yet on how grades are calculated

Senators passed a House bill on Thursday that allows the state to continue the practice for two more years of awarding schools A-F letter grades on a 15 point scale—but they failed to act on a proposal to adjust the school grading formula so that the letter grades no longer serve as a simple indicator of whether a school serves rich students or poor students.

Beginning with data from the 2013-14 school year that was first unveiled this past February, North Carolina’s public schools began receiving letter grades that are intended to gauge how well schools are educating students. In the accountability system’s first year, a school had to score 85-100 points to get an A, 70-84 points to get a B, and so on.

With 2014-15 data, schools would have had to score 90-100 points to get an A, 80-89 points to get a B, etc according to current law. The switch would mean many schools would drop a letter grade—even if they had been making good academic progress with their students. Today’s passage of HB 358 will delay that switch for two years.

The bill does not fix the more contentious part of the A-F school grading model, an accountability system that is the brain child of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. That issue is the formula for how the A-F grades are calculated for schools.

Currently, 80 percent of a school’s grade is based on how well its students perform on standardized tests on a given day, referred to as ‘achievement.’ Twenty percent of the grade is based on how well students “grow” over time – whether or not their test scores improve year to year, which many education advocates say is a better measure of how well a school is doing to educate kids.

Senator Josh Stein attempted to amend HB 358 on the Senate floor on Thursday to change the A-F school grading formula to 50 percent achievement, 50 percent growth – but his amendment was tabled by fellow lawmakers.

“Achievement is entirely correlated to income,” said Stein. “Schools do well when they come from a well to do community…growth is not correlated to income. Kids learn from wherever they are, whether they are poor or whether they are rich—if they are taught well.”

When the A-F school grades were first released in February, proponents hailed the accountability system as a way for parents to finally know just how well their schools were doing to educate their children.

forsythSchoolsDF-01

Click on the map for a visual representation of how D and F schools are largely located in poor communities in Forsyth County

But critics of the system quickly noted that nearly all of the schools receiving Ds and Fs were those serving high poverty communities. Schools receiving As and Bs were largely serving more affluent communities. The measure, critics say, is too simple–it fails to sufficiently account for the academic growth that good schools help students achieve and does not take into consideration the challenges that schools serving a high number of poor students face.

“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.

Many schools that received Ds and Fs were making progress with students on a year to year basis.

“Eighty-six schools got a D or F that met or exceeded their growth expectations,” said Senator Stein as he introduced his amendment. “To consider those schools a failure…is absolutely antithetical to what they are. We should be standing up and applauding those schools.” Instead, said Stein, parents are abandoning the very schools that are helping their kids, thanks to the low grades.

Conversely, Stein noted that there are 45 A or B schools that did not meet growth.

“These are schools that we are giving As and Bs and saying to the parents ‘you’re kids are at a good school’ even though that school is not educating those children.”

Senator Apodaca encouraged his colleagues to table Senator Stein’s motion to tweak the A-F school grading formula, saying he hasn’t heard any complaints from parents in the mountains—only thank yous.  He has heard complaints from some principals and administrators who don’t like A-F school grades, however.

“I’m trying to think if I’ve heard any [complaints],” said Sen. Apodaca. “I’m sure I’ve heard some because some people don’t like Santa Claus.”

There is another bill that has passed the House that would tweak the formula just as Senator Stein has suggested, making A-F school grades based on 50 percent achievement, 50 percent growth.

But Senators have referred that bill, HB 803, to the Ways and Means committee, where bills typically go to die.

Today’s legislation that adjusts the A-F school grading scale now awaits Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature.

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