See why House leaders believe North Carolina should change how it hands down school letter grades

The growth versus student achievement debate took center stage Tuesday during a House Education Committee meeting

Under House bill 354, student achievement and growth would be given equal weight – 50 percent each — when North Carolina’s controversial school performance grades are determined.

Currently, student scores on state exams accounts for 80 percent of a school’s performance grade while growth makes up the other 20 percent.

Educators have long argued that a school’s performance grade should be weighted in favor of growth, which measures how much students learn from one year to the next. They believe growth more accurately reflects the quality of teaching and learning occurring in a school.

Critics of the current yard stick contend achievement, or proficiency as it’s often called, measures only how well students performed on state exams.

Growth is the ‘essence of education’

Rep. Craig Horn, (R-Union), one of the bill’s primary sponsors said schools that show students growing academically shouldn’t be penalized under the state grading scheme.

“My definition of education is growth,” Horn said. “That’s what we do. We move kids [academically] from here to there. That’s the very essence of education.”

Horn added that improving academic outcomes for a child who is not motivated, doesn’t care or is facing significant challenges is tough work.

“That’s why we think, in this bill, we’re suggesting that growth should have equal weight with performance,” Horn said.

Rep. Linda Johnson, (R-Cabarrus), also a committee co-chair, said HB 354 isn’t perfect but the current system needs to be changed to provide a more accurate picture of student achievement.

“If we don’t change these numbers or get a better system, all we’re ever going to know is that we have low-wealth schools,” Johnson said. “What we want to know is how many years are the children who are sent to us behind, how many years have they made up and how long is it going to take to get them to where they need to be.”

Rep. Donny Lambeth, (R-Forsyth), wanted to know if committee leaders have looked at best practices in other states that hand down letter grades.

“Or, is this just what you perceive or believe is the next best step,” Lambeth said. “I do trust your judgment on this but I do wonder what other states are doing.”

Brian Gwyn, a member of the Legislative Analysis Division, said that in most states that award school letter grades, growth is either weighted equally or more heavily than student achievement.

Separate grades for growth, achievement?

The bill received a favorable report from the committee and was referred to the House Rules Committee where it will be considered along with House Bill 266, which would create two separate grades, one for growth and another for proficiency or student achievement.

Rep. Dennis Riddell, (R-Alamance), a co-sponsor on HB 266, said growth is underrepresented in the current formula.

Riddell said HB 266 would establish a 0-100 grading scale for achievement with a 15 point spread between grades. A second grade for growth would be based on a 0-50 point scale with a 10 point spread between grades.

“What this does, it gives the public, it gives parents, it gives teachers, it gives everyone involved in public education in our state a much better picture, a more complete picture of what is actually taking place in a given school,” Riddell said.

State Rep. Graig Meyer, (D-Orange), said he appreciates the intent of HB 354 particularly since the State Senate has been unwilling to “budge” on the issue in recent sessions.

But Meyer said he believes the House must be more aggressive in its recommendation.

“I think that we can be more audacious than changing the formula to 50-50,” Meyer said.

He said states with the best grading scales have more complex systems.

“There are a lot of state’s that what they do is add a specific component about how quickly are you moving your bottom 25 percent of students, so they get double weighted in the formula, for instance, so that school really has to pay attention to the most struggling kids,” Meyer said. “We haven’t done hardly anything for the lowest performing schools in our states, schools that are full of those kids.”

Meyer said Florida, considered a leader in school grades, has 11 factors in its school-grading scale.

“We’re just punishing poverty, but if we can figure out how to use public policy in a grading scale in the way that a state like Florida and other states have  to incentive schools to do what we want, we could do a heck of a lot better in North Carolina,” Meyer said, endorsing HB 266 as a good start.

The bill received a favorable report and was referred to the House Rules Committee. The committee will decide whether to let the full House vote on the bill.

A bill to reward growth

Also, on Tuesday, the committee referred HB 276 to the House Rules Committee. Under the bill, schools that receive a “D” or “F” letter grade would no longer carry the stigma of low-performing if the school meets growth targets.

“To tag a school as low-performing when there is growth taking place, measurable growth, that’s meeting or exceeding [growth], is unfair to the teachers, unfair to the students, unfair to the parents and the leadership at the school,” Riddell said, a primary sponsor of the bill. “What this bill seeks to do is to bring a little more equity to the definitions.”

If the bill becomes law, Riddell said there would be fewer schools identified as low-performing. Last year, 476 schools were identified as low-performing schools.

Corporal punishment ban

The committee ended its busy meeting by backing legislation that would end corporal punishment in North Carolina.

Under HB 295, spanking and paddling would be banned in all of the state’s traditional public schools and charters schools. Private schools would still have the option to use corporal punishment.

None of the state’s 115 school districts currently use the practice.

“What this bill would do is clean up our statues to affirm that fact,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, (D-Buncombe), one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

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