Letter grades for schools pushed back to January
Superintendent Bert L’Homme said he isn’t expecting great scores for Durham Public Schools as well as many other districts when new A-F letter grades are issued for public schools as part of the N.C. School Report Cards.
The letter grades were supposed to be shared Aug. 1, but the General Assembly has pushed the date to Jan. 15.
“The way it was explained to me is that they made that decision because the designations would come out before the election,” L’Homme told school board members this week.
The grades will reflect such student performance standards as proficiency on state standardized tests and graduation rates.
“It’s going to be hard for all of our school systems not to be rated very low with a letter grade,” L’Homme said on Monday during a meeting of the board’s Instructional Services Committee. “It’s going to be up to us to get the meaning out there.”
L’Homme said it will be important that the letter grades and new state test scores be delivered to the community in the proper context.
He also vowed that the district will be transparent and that the data would be readily available and shared with the public.
“To reduce a whole school’s ability to teach kids or a whole county’s ability to teach kids to one letter grade is going to be difficult for them [the state] to do and for us to be able to share with our community,” L’Homme said.
The letter grades were supposed to be part of the state School Report Cards in 2013, but some districts lobbied for a delay to give students a chance to adjust to new, tougher Common Core standards.
DPS students struggled under the new standards, as did those in many other districts, passing the tougher tests at a 34 percent proficiency rate, which was 10 points below the 44.7 percent state average proficiency rate for standardized end-of-grade tests in reading and math in third through eighth grade, science tests for fifth- and eighth-graders and end-of-course tests in three high school subject.
L’Homme told the board that it will be important to note growth in academic achievement when it is evident.
He explained that it’s worth celebrating, for example, when a student coming into fifth-grade is performing on a second-grade level and gains two years of growth.
The state tests will show the student at a fourth-grade level, which is still below grade level for that student, L’Homme said.
“The mere fact that this child has improved two years is something to be celebrated,” L’Homme said. “We do have this intent of closing the achievement gap. It’s all about accelerating learning in order to get to the point where the gap is closed. Closing the gap is an important thing.”
He said the board will play an important role in providing parents with the right answers about the letter grades.
“You’re going to be out there at Safeway and somebody’s going to ask you about this or at church on Sunday and we need to have good answers for them that enlist them in this task of raising student achievement in Durham Public Schools,” L’Homme said.
L’Homme, who has been superintendent fewer than 20 days, used Safeway in his example, a popular grocery store chain in the District of Columbia where he was superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington before taking the job in Durham.
School board Vice Chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown said board members will have to become competent in explaining the testing data and letter grades.
“We have to really understand it, and be able to articulate it to our families,” Forte-Brown said. “Our advocacy tool kit is really going to have to be sharp. We are going to have to answer to parents truthfully.”
Some state lawmakers have complained that assigned letter grades to schools unfairly punishes schools in districts where there are high poverty rates and also those with high enrollments of non-English speaking students.
School board member Natalie Beyer said it’s tough to ignore the politics behind the decision to assign letter grades to schools
“The letter grades were only established to show us as failing entities rather than to be supportive, knowing that they’re not informational for parents,” Beyer said. “They’re just scarlet letters for our schools.”
L’Homme said the district must use the letter grades as a way to launch a campaign for improved academic achievement.
“I hope we can use this as another push to do better,” L’Homme said. “We’re going to find a way to turn this into something productive instead of, ‘Oh, woe is me.’ ” “This is what it is. We’re going to do better next year and the year after.”