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CMS board ponders school letter grades

Can Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools craft school ratings that carry more weight than state letter grades?

That was one of the issues the school board discussed at a daylong retreat Friday, along with how much flexibility to offer high-performing schools, how to engage the public and how to deal with the media.

Superintendent Heath Morrison said he plans to bring the board a plan for measuring school success in July, using data such as graduation rates and performance on the national SAT and ACT exams. The biggest challenge: State reading, math and science tests, which have long been a mainstay of school ratings in North Carolina, are revised so frequently it’s hard to get a good gauge of year-to-year progress. New versions of all exams rolled out this year, and results aren’t expected until October.

Morrison’s version will likely be more like state “report cards,” which compile several data points but don’t put a simple label on the overall performance.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have passed a bill requiring that schools be given letter grades based on the percent of students passing state exams. Morrison and board members said that won’t reflect success at schools making gains with disadvantaged students. And Morrison said it can overrate schools that aren’t helping strong students grow.

Cathy Mincberg, president of the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems, told the board it’s difficult but possible to override a bad state rating system.

“You’re tap-dancing like hell on the day they release the grades,” she said, but the key is creating a system that more accurately reflects reality. That means schools that get high grades from a bad rating system must resist the temptation to celebrate, she said.

If a community believes letter grades aren’t valid, she said, “the state ends up with a black eye, not you, because their system doesn’t make sense.”

Morrison said that even with an alternative measurement system, “we’re going to do what we have to do on state accountability. We don’t want D-F schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.”

Mincberg led the eight-hour session at the CMS Leadership Academy. CMS spent just over $5,000, including $4,500 for Mincberg’s work and materials and $613 for travel, lodging and food, said Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block.

State and federal mandates make it difficult to deliver on the board’s current Theory of Action, Morrison said. That theory says that successful schools get freedom and flexibility, while lower-performing ones get tighter control from central offices.

That doesn’t match today’s reality, Morrison said. Even at successful schools, he said, principals “can’t tell you what their autonomy is.”

“It sounds like we’re awfully close to saying our Theory of Action doesn’t matter,” said board member Tom Tate.

Mincberg talked to the board about the importance of building relationships with business and civic leaders, teacher groups, clergy, parent activists, elected officials and others who have a stake in public schools. And she gave them advice about dealing with the media, such as being honest when bad news breaks and providing a steady stream of human interest stories that give a positive view of the district.

She urged board members to remember that all news outlets are driven by profits, and that conflict, controversy and scandal sell.

“The more badly the board behaves,” she said, “the more you sell newspapers.”

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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