Reverse course on school grades

Aug. 16, 2014 @ 12:02 AM

This editorial appeared in the Charlotte Observer

The N.C. legislature, in a budget Gov. Pat McCrory signed, has delayed until after Jan.15 the issuance of new report cards with A-F grades for academic quality at each public school in the state. Instead of a delay, lawmakers should take this pause in implementation as an opportunity to ditch the idea entirely. It's unwise and problematic.

Those points are buttressed by a report from researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Southern California last November. The report, published in the journal Educational Researcher from an evaluation of accountability systems in 42 states and the District of Columbia, panned the A-F letter grading system. The authors said: "While A-to-F systems are, on the surface, transparent, the underlying design of these systems involves a great deal of arbitrariness that makes it difficult for educators and parents to understand performance."

They added that "states with (school accountability) systems among the strongest include Massachusetts and Michigan -- each uses subjects other than mathematics and ELA (English) for accountability purposes, uses non-test-based measures for priority and focus classifications, and measures proficiency using points along the distribution."

North Carolina, like many other states, gives short shrift to student improvement in calculating its A-F grades — and that's something educators have rightly criticized. The formula for calculating school grades is 80 percent for school achievement and 20 percent for growth. Included in the school achievement score are test scores for lower grades, and a combination of test scores, 4-year graduation rates, ACT scores and math course rigor for high schools. Math, English and science are the only courses considered in calculating the grades.

Such a system clearly cannot reflect the overall academic performance at schools. The grades are misleading and inaccurate.

Letter grades also fail to account for the differences in each school's economic, cultural and racial makeup that affect performance. It also doesn't reflect enormous efforts needed to overcome those obstacles.

Last year, a lobbying group took 2012 N.C. test scores and converted them to letter grades. Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Shamrock Gardens Elementary, a high-poverty school with great success at boosting student performance, got a D-minus with 58 percent of its students performing at grade level or above.

Inaccurate labels could abound in the A-F grading system, causing unwarranted angst. Those fears could destabilize good schools as some parents and students opt out rather than stay as schools continually improve.

The A-F grades have few upsides and lots of downsides. Lawmakers should reverse course.