News

National report touts North Carolina universities

Desks in a classroom.North Carolina universities once again feature prominently in U.S. News & World Report‘s oft-cited annual rankings of the nation’s top colleges.

Duke University, Wake Forest University, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University, UNC-Charlotte, East Carolina and Gardner-Webb all placed on the report’s rankings of national universities—a measure often pointed to by higher education leaders in the state.

As The News & Observer points out today:

The magazine rates universities based on hundreds of data points and what it says are 15 measures of academic quality. It produces a number of lists, including The “Best National Universities,” which is the most cited college ranking. U.S. News also breaks down other universities based on mission or regional focus or best financial value, or for business students or engineering students. There’s even a list called “A+ Schools for B Students.”

The rankings have been criticized for fueling a competition that puts too much emphasis on elite colleges in the United States. U.S. News editors emphasize that their analysis primarily takes into account student outcomes such as graduation and retention rates — measures that represent a solid higher education investment for students and their parents.

The N&O’s Jane Stancill offers a handy breakdown of North Carolina universities’ performance as well, highlighting rankings of state colleges, large and small:

Best national liberal arts colleges

Davidson College, near Charlotte, ranked 10th. Salem College (117th), UNC Asheville (141st), Guilford College and Warren Wilson College (tied for 160th) and Meredith College (163rd) also made the list.

Best regional universities (South)

These schools have undergraduate and master’s programs, but few doctoral offerings. Elon University was first in the South. Also ranked: Appalachian State (9th), UNC Wilmington (14th), Queens University of Charlotte (20nd), Campbell University (27th), Wingate University (32nd), Western Carolina University (38th), Lenoir Rhyne University (61st), N.C. Central University (80th), Methodist University (85th), Elizabeth City State University and Pfeiffer University (tied for 87th), UNC Pembroke (102nd) and Winston-Salem State University (tied for 106th).

Best regional colleges (South)

This looks at schools that focus almost entirely on undergraduate programs. High Point University was first in the South. Also ranked: Catawba College (4th), Barton College and Belmont Abbey College (tied for 8th), Lees-McRae College and University of Mount Olive (tied for 19th), Brevard College (21st), Mars Hill University (24th), Bennett College (25th), Greensboro College (44th), N.C. Wesleyan College (46th), Chowan University and St. Augustine’s University (tied for 50th).

News

State releases list of 48 schools eligible for controversial charter takeover

School busesForty-eight schools spread across 21 districts make up those elementary schools eligible for inclusion in the first year of North Carolina’s controversial charter takeover model, according to a list released Thursday by state officials.

The program, dubbed the Innovative School District (formerly the Achievement School District), would launch with two schools in the 2018-2019 school year.

It would potentially allow for-profit, charter management organizations to assume control of low-performing schools, part of a series of controversial reforms backed by Republicans leadership in the N.C. General Assembly and school choice advocates.

The list released Thursday does not guarantee any school will be selected for the district, district Superintendent Eric Hall said, only that it may be considered further going forward. Districts were spread across the state, although districts such as Durham, Forsyth and Robeson included a number of eligible schools.

State officials are expected to narrow down that list in the coming months, with members of the State Board of Education expected to make a final selection in December.

“These are schools that we’re going to be working hand-in-hand with for sustainable change,” Hall said Thursday.

Multiple board members expressed confidence this week in Hall, the former leader of the nonprofit Communities in Schools North Carolina.

“I think North Carolina’s going to do this better than any other state that’s done it,” said board member Becky Taylor.

However, critics have been wary of the takeover model, particularly because of its middling results and myriad controversies in states like Tennessee and Louisiana.

Eligible schools named Thursday all met a number of qualifications for inclusion, Hall said, including school performance grades in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide. Such schools would also have to fail to meet or exceed growth goals in the previous three academic years.

Hall added Thursday that district leadership for eligible schools have already been notified.

The district plan would allow five-year contracts for operations with charter and education management organizations, with annual checkups on progress.

Charter takeover is not the sole component of the district, as Hall pointed out. The district will also encompass so-called “Innovation Zones” or “I-Zones,” in which selected low-performing schools could be granted charter-like flexibility in hopes of improving performance.

Continue to follow Policy Watch for developments in the Innovative School District.

News

Critics pounce on North Carolina’s new plan for high-stakes testing

Critics are swarming around North Carolina’s draft plan for complying with the nation’s new education law, The News & Observer reports.

The controversy centers chiefly around standardized testing, following years of complaints from education reformers of “over-testing” in K-12 schools.

Granted greater flexibility over accountability measures in the new Every Student Succeeds Plan (ESSA)—Congress’ 2015 rewrite of federal education law—many figured North Carolina leaders would take advantage by trimming schools’ reliance on high-stakes testing.

But as The News & Observer‘s T. Keung Hui notes, many are disappointed by the results, but the state board chair says the blame may lie with the N.C. General Assembly.

From The N&O:

State education leaders have talked for nearly two years about taking advantage of the flexibility in the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to reduce the focus placed on using tests to hold schools accountable for how they educate their students. Critics of the new plan that the State Board of Education will vote on Thursday say it wastes the opportunity North Carolina had to reduce the emphasis on testing.

“What we’re getting is more of the same, the same thing we’ve been doing for decades,” Bobbie Cavnar, the outgoing teacher adviser to the board, said last month. “We’re doubling down on test scores. This is our chance to be innovative.”

People are pointing fingers as to why things aren’t changing.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the state board, said their hands were tied by state lawmakers, who overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto to pass into law a bill that requires what the state should include in the ESSA plan. State lawmakers wanted to keep their controversial A-F school grading system, so they modified it to make it comply with Every Student Succeeds.

The A-F grading system gives schools a letter grade largely based on how many of their students pass state exams. Supporters say the grades make it easier for families to see how schools are faring, while critics say it stigmatizes high-poverty schools that are more likely to have lower test scores.

“The accountability has been written into statute, so we’re going to have to continue with testing,” Cobey said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t modify it over time. We’ve been trying to make modifications over the last several years.”

Education advocates have been seeking reforms to the nation’s high-stakes testing system for more than a decade, since 2001’s federal No Child Left Behind law dramatically expanded the role of standardized exams as an accountability tool.

And, as Policy Watch noted in January, testing played a prominent role in new Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson’s campaign last year.

That said, many cautioned against expecting too much from this year’s draft plan. And at least one top official in the Department of Public Instruction suggested in January that the testing flexibility granted by ESSA was at least partly overblown.

From our January report:

However, as Lou Fabrizio, director of data research and federal policy for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction points out, ESSA, while it grants states additional powers to assess their accountability measures, mostly retains the unpopular testing requirements of NCLB.

That includes annual end-of-grade testing in English and math for grades 3-8, as well as at least one examination each in math, science and language arts in high school.

That said, Fabrizio notes the new federal law extends some sweeteners to states weary of the testing requirements. States will have broader powers to determine what they do with those testing results.

And federal officials are also offering up funding for states to conduct testing audits.

“The assumption, and it’s probably a very accurate assumption, is that if school systems and states did that analysis, they may find out that a lot of the testing they are doing is not something the federal government requires,” said Fabrizio.

North Carolina’s testing, in addition to offering the federally-mandated examinations, also includes a state-ordered, third-grade reading test at the beginning of the year to pinpoint students’ needs. Schools also push ACT examinations to test college readiness in grades 10 and 11, both of which could be deemed unnecessary by state leaders.

Read more

News

State Board of Education to talk charter takeover model next week

Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall

Members of the State Board of Education will consider multiple policies next week governing a controversial program that would allow charter operators to assume control over selected low-performing schools.

North Carolina lawmakers approved the program last year, citing an urgent need for reforms in some of the state’s most struggling schools, although critics pointed to middling results in other states as reason for pause.

State officials in the so-called Innovative School District (ISD) office—formerly called the Achievement School District—hope to select a pair of elementary schools for takeover in the 2018-2019 school year.

Based on the draft policies, those schools that meet certain state-prescribed qualifications would be listed this month. State board members would receive a final list of potential schools in October and board members would take a vote by December.

Charter operators would be granted broad powers over school operations, including hiring and firing powers, in selected schools.

Read Policy Watch’s 2017 Q&A with ISD Superintendent Eric Hall here.

News

Report dives into academic, enrollment struggles at North Carolina virtual charters

If you haven’t already, take the time to read WRAL’s deep-dive into North Carolina’s fledgling virtual charter schools, two programs run by for-profit companies that reported soaring withdrawal numbers and middling academic scores in their first years.

The report highlights parents’ surveys, examining at least some of the reasons that nearly 2,500 students pulled out of N.C. Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy in their first two years of operations.

As Policy Watch has reported, the controversial programs have enjoyed the support of school choice backers and many Republican state lawmakers—as well as the majority of parents surveyed by the state—although virtual charters have had a bumpy ride in North Carolina and in other states as well.

Indeed, one Stanford University study found deleterious effects on student achievement in virtual charters nationwide, and North Carolina’s own programs have struggled to meet academic expectations, according to state reports.

From WRAL:

Since the schools launched two years ago, they have enjoyed strong support from families, often receiving high marks on parent satisfaction surveys. But they have also struggled with low performance grades and high withdrawal rates.

Their first year, the schools enrolled nearly 3,900 students combined. By the end of the year, more than 1,200 students – more than 30 percent – left to seek education elsewhere, prompting one State Board of Education member to warn, “We need to monitor this closely.” This past year, the schools enrolled more than 4,400 students and lost nearly 1,200, or about 27 percent.

Tracking how many students leave the schools has been a complex and controversial topic since lawmakers granted the schools four-year pilot programs beginning in 2015. Virtual charter school leaders say their withdrawal numbers appear inflated because of the unique students they serve, some of whom only enroll for a brief time. Last year, lawmakers decided to allow the schools to stop counting certain students who leave, including those who withdraw within 30 days. The change allowed the schools to report drastically lower withdrawal rates of 5 percent each.

While the schools’ overall enrollment and withdrawal numbers are publicly reported, not much is known about why students leave. In public meetings and interviews with WRAL News, leaders at both schools often rely on anecdotes to explain why students depart, typically sharing stories of children undergoing cancer treatments or other personal struggles who need to take online courses for a short time before returning to their previous schools.

But a detailed breakdown of specific reasons why students leave the online schools has never been reported – until now.

Read more