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State’s controversial A-F school grading system to receive a makeover

State education leaders are looking to retool the state’s controversial A-F performance grading system that North Carolina began using nearly a decade ago.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) launched a survey Thursday in partnership with EdNC, an online news agency, that asks parents, teachers and others for advice about how to best evaluate schools. The survey will remain open until Oct. 10. The results will be posted publicly.

School performance grades are mainly determined by student scores on state end-of-grade and end-of-course tests. Eighty percent of the grade is based on student proficiency on state tests and 20 percent on the academic growth students experience from one year to the next.

Critics have argued since the inception of the Republican-backed grading system in 2013 that it paints an inaccurate picture of the teaching and learning occurring in North Carolina’s schools. Letter grades are used by parents to make big decisions such as where to buy homes and which school to enroll their children.

A big concern among critics is that the A-F grades penalize economically disadvantaged students and low-wealth schools.

“North Carolina’s SPG (school performance grade) system needlessly stigmatizes schools that serve Black, brown, and Native students. Schools enrolling such students are much more likely to receive “failing” grades than schools that are disproportionately white and Asian,” Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project, wrote in 2021 report titled: School Performance Grades: A Legislative Tool for Stigmatizing Non-White Schools.  (Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.)

More than 58 percent of schools where 81% to 100% of students are economically disadvantaged received a letter grade of F in the most recent round of grading. Statewide, only 10% of schools scored F. Roughly 42% of all schools received letter grades of D or F.

Meanwhile, supporters believe the grades help to hold schools accountable for student achievement, provide parents with understandable data and allow schools to target areas for improvement.

The school grading system must be changed to accurately measure school performance, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a Republican.

“School performance grades are really about school quality, but right now the model overemphasizes student test scores while not accounting for the other ways schools are preparing students for post-secondary success,” Truitt said.

The superintendent said the model should incorporate other important metrics – not just high-stakes student testing – to redefine school quality.

“This survey is the first step of many, as we look to solicit feedback from across the state and select indicators that help paint a more complete picture of school quality,” Truitt said.

A working group that met this month to begin to discuss and redesign school performance grades explored additional indicators to measure school quality such as school climate, school safety, parent engagement and career/college readiness, according to a NCDPI press release. Any new model must comply with federal requirements.

“While academic proficiency in our schools remains of utmost importance, there are other indicators that should be considered in the overall model,” said Deputy Superintendent Michael Maher, who oversees the Office of Innovation, which is charged with the school performance grade redesign work. “This process is heavily focused on feedback so that we can learn what North Carolinians deem important that should be considered when determining the quality of a school.”

The state’s modeled its A-F school grade system largely after the one used in Florida. That state started assigning school letter grades in 1999 based on state test scores.

Florida revamped its letter grading system for the 2014-15 school year and grades are now based on achievement (proficiency), learning gains (growth), graduation rates, and college and career acceleration, which includes student success on AP or International Baccalaureate exams.

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State’s controversial A-F school grading system to receive a makeover