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School Districts Push Back Against School Letter Grades

The Durham County Board of Education passed a resolution demanding the legislature repeal the A-F grading system.
Jess Clark

UPDATED Dec. 4, 2015

Friday was the deadline for schools and districts labeled low-performing to submit their improvement plans. State law has designated 581 schools as low-performing based on student test scores. But some districts are speaking out against the A-F school grading system and lawmakers’ moves to toughen it.Lawmakers say the school grades are clear indicators for parents as to how well their child’s school is doing. But six school districts, including Durham, Wake and Guilford, have publicly opposed the grading system.

Winston-Salem Forsyth Superintendent Beverly Emory said her issue isn’t with the A-F grades overall. "What we have sort of stepped up about," Emory said, "is the change in the definition of 'low-performing school,' which requires a school to exceed expected growth."

In September, lawmakers put language in the budget that labels D and F schools as low-performing, even if they meet expected growth in student test scores. This statute increased the number of low-performing schools across the state, most of which serve a high percentage of students who come from poverty.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth school board passed resolutions rejecting this designation. Growth in scores, Emory said, is among the most important measures for how well a school is doing, especially in high-poverty schools.

"You may have a 100 percent free-and-reduced lunch school; but if they’re making growth, then you’re growing those kids," she said.

"It's about shaming schools...and it is really about expanding the voucher system."

The Durham school board passed its resolution in November demanding the General Assembly repeal the entire school grading system. At a meeting, board member Natalie Beyer said by minimizing growth in test scores, legislators designed the grading system to make public schools look bad.

"It’s about shaming schools," Beyer said. "And it is really about expanding the voucher system in the next few years in North Carolina."

Lawmakers who support the grading system say public schools are in bad shape. Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) railed against the Winston-Salem/Forsyth board at a November government oversight committee meeting for its flexible interpretation of the statute.

"What it [the grading system] was always designed to do is show that the [school] system has failed and we’re out there fixing it," he said. "We want the parents to know exactly what they’re getting and at some point give them  an opportunity to choose where they want to educate their child."

Durham resident Alex Modestou spoke out against his school board’s resolution, saying the grades and low-performing school designations shed light on the poor performance of high-poverty schools. He pointed to W.G. Pearson Elementary school—a school that met growth expectations, but where less than a quarter of students tested at grade-level.

"Undoubtedly that is a broken system," he told the Durham school board. "It is fatally flawed, and as board you are failing to act with an appropriate level of urgency to rebuild it."

"What it was always designed to do is show that the system has failed and we're out there fixing it."

Beyer said before the letter grades, Durham was already working to identify and help struggling schools. And she said the law makes it harder to recruit quality teachers and principals to the schools that need them the most. Principals of schools labeled low-performing for two out of three consecutive years have to be put on remediation, transferred, demoted or fired by their district superintendent.

"It assigns a scarlet letter to the school, but it comes with no support from the state," Beyer said. "We’d like to have more pre-k in those schools, we’d like to have more targeted summer programming, we’d like to have our most experienced teachers and educators, we’d like to have smaller class sizes—things that are evidence-based practices for helping support students who have extra needs."

Local school officials are hopeful their resolutions will prompt lawmakers to change the way school grades work. They’re looking warily towards next fall, when the state is scheduled to move to an even stricter grading scale.

Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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