Letter grades: reflecting poorly on the graders

The state’s new School Performance Grades issued Thursday are not where LCPS would like them to be, but we would say the same thing if all our schools passed with flying colors. Learning is about making progress — continually improving — and LCPS has a vision of what an improved school system should look like and is moving toward that vision.

Two years ago a group of volunteers assembled from the community, public boards, our schools and our district administration developed seven goals for improvement; and LCPS, with oversight from the Lenoir County Board of Education, began implementing programs geared to those goals. We see nothing in the School Performance Grades to dissuade us from continuing that course. In short, our plan for improvement is to stick to our improvement plan, to build on the success we have already seen with our digital learning initiative and develop other task force recommendations into programs that will impact the way our teachers teach and our students learn. We are confident that continued diligence in this improvement effort will prepare LCPS graduates for college and career.

That said, though, we cannot ignore these letter-grade labels because, frankly, they malign the hard work of our teachers, students and administrators and, because of the flawed formula used to calculate the grades, could create a misleading impression of what’s happening in our schools. Parents may have trouble reconciling the grade their school received with the good work they know goes on there. It’s impossible to compress all that a school does over a 10-month school year into a single letter, and it is irresponsible to try if the grading process ignores significant factors that influence or reflect academic performance.

Consider these points in determining the value of North Carolina’s School Performance Grades:

  • The formula used to calculate a school’s letter grade puts too much emphasis on standardized test scores (80 percent) and too little on students’ academic growth (20 percent). What if LCPS gave a student a letter grade for the entire year based on one or two test scores? That calculation would not provide a complete picture. Neither does the letter-grade formula devised by the N.C. General Assembly.
  • Nine of our schools met or exceeded growth benchmarks based on 2013-2014 test results. For most of those schools, however, the letter grades essentially ignore the progress students are making.
  • Kinston includes two of the most “economically distressed” neighborhoods in the state, according to the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies. That kind of poverty is usually predictive of low test scores. Children from those neighborhoods can certainly learn and they consistently show growth in our schools, but they also start from a very different place than children in most North Carolina schools. Unlike letter-grade models in some other states, North Carolina’s does not take into account factors like socioeconomic conditions that influence academic performance and fall outside a school’s control. It’s no coincidence that 100 percent of the schools labeled with an F and 97 percent of the schools labeled with a D have high rates of poverty among their student bodies. A model that judges an affluent urban school and a poor rural school by the same standards invites pointless comparisons.
  • We do not see the two LCPS schools that received the lowest marks as failing schools, but rather as schools that are working very hard to succeed. The two schools are the centerpiece of a dynamic afterschool program funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant that essentially extends the school day for 160 students by 2½ hours four days a week. Both schools already avail themselves of on-campus coaches from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The elementary school has enlisted the help of a number of community partners, including banks and churches and the local hospital, whose volunteers log significant time as tutors and mentors. The middle school was recently selected for an Apple ConnectEd Grant – one of 114 in the nation – and this year will begin its transition to digital learning with the support of Apple and LCPS.
  • The Lenoir County Board of Education approved a resolution in December calling for a “more accurate” school evaluation model. It remains our position that North Carolina should revise the current model and develop a system that takes a broader measure of school quality and renders a fair, unbiased picture of the value of public schools.