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Our view

Our view: School grades fail the test

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The current method of evaluating North Carolina public schools with simplistic and often stigmatizing letter grades is both too narrow and narrow-minded.

So, it’s encouraging to see that the state, finally, may be considering a better way.

In a statewide survey conducted by the state Department of Public Instruction and the independent news website EdNC, 90% of the 26,000 respondents said they supported a broader and more holistic approach to grading schools.

As the Journal’s Lisa O’Donnell reported last week, only 14% favored keeping the current formula.

Small wonder. As it stands now, the system rates each school from A-F, with about 80% of each grade primarily based on student passage rates on state tests.

For elementary and middle schools, 100% of the grade is based on test results.

While reliable measures of student and teacher performance are an absolute necessity, this one does not itself measure up.

Even if you agree with letter grades, they should take more into account than test scores.

Another shortcoming in the current rubric is that it places too little weight on student growth. A school with lower scores that are trending upward should get more credit for its progress. The current grading system factors growth scores into only 20% of the formula.

And still another problem with the existing system is the letter grades themselves, which can stigmatize schools, students, teachers and even whole communities as failures.

These grades can make an already challenging situation worse by burdening schools with scarlet letters that may discourage parents from sending their children there, as well as dissuade the most talented and effective teachers from wanting to work in certain schools.

Where’s the incentive for taking on some of the toughest learning environments in a school system and getting a bad grade for your trouble? This stick-versus-carrot approach in turn can create a downward spiral of low morale and low expectations and, thus, more low results.

The survey respondents, 42% of whom were K-12 teachers and 32% of whom were parents, grandparents or guardians, also suggested broadening the scores to consider such areas as school safety, school climate, “durable skills” and courses outside of core academics. Also, 87% said that there should be different measures of success for elementary, middle and high schools.

To be clear, honest, objective and reliable measures of student performance are essential. You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are.

Nearly three-fourths (72%) of the survey’s respondents agreed, saying that some level of standardized testing is needed.

And the problems are serious and urgent.

In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, 75% of schools met or exceeded growth — a higher rate than the statewide average of 70%.

But 35 schools, or nearly 48% of schools in the district that were tested, have been identified as “low performing.”

There’s still much work to be done.

COVID-19 also had a dramatic impact on our schools’ performance. Nationally, student achievement took seismic hits as the virus spread and many school districts, including ours, shifted on the fly to remote classes.

So, reliable measures of student progress will be doubly important going forward.

A fuller, more accurate accounting of our schools would only help. But the measures ought to be fair and should reflect more than test results.

That’s not just our opinion.

The survey results are a “call to action,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said.

“There is widespread agreement that school performance grades should be more encompassing than just test scores and instead include indicators that more accurately reflect school quality,” Truitt said in a statement.

It’s worth noting that Truitt is a Republican, because the last word on whether the system changes ultimately will lie with the GOP-controlled legislature.

Republicans have made it clear during the current campaign that they encourage more parental input into schools.

Then they ought to be pleased. This survey provides precisely that.

The point here is not to avoid accountability but to increase it by improving the tools used to measure how our schools are doing.

In an era of sometimes deep divides on public education policy, too often based on malicious myths and unfounded fears, can we at least all agree on that?

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