If you believe, as we do, that standardized tests are a valuable tool for measuring how our students and teachers are performing, you should be cringing at Thursday’s release of A-F letter grades for North Carolina’s public schools.
The grades, which were mandated by a 2012 law pushed and passed by N.C. Republicans, are an inaccurate and superficial use of state test scores. They’re a destructive and political manipulation of information that’s meant to help our children and their teachers get better.
And because the A-F grades are primarily based on how students score on state tests, they told us what we already know. Schools with a lot of low-income students, who generally perform worse on tests, got almost all of the D’s and F’s Thursday. Affluent schools did better. Surprise.
At the least, the grades should more accurately reflect what’s happening at schools by putting those test scores in context. Right now, only 20 percent of a school’s A-F grade comes from measurements showing how students improved their scores year to year. That means even if a school is helping its students get better – which happens to be the primary purpose of testing – schools can still get a failing grade because overall scores are low.
CMS and other school districts have asked state officials and lawmakers for a more even split in the A-F grading formula. CMS has proposed 50/50 between test scores and improvement data, although there are questions how that might impact grades for schools that don’t have as much room to improve.
CMS also is working on a school evaluation formula based on several criteria, including academic proficiency, student growth and rigorous classes, and we were encouraged Thursday that N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore said the House would work with state and local educators “to refine this performance model to ensure it measures exactly what is going on in our children’s classrooms.”
A good start would be to eliminate the A-F grades altogether. Test results are meant for more precise use. They can provide numbers that tell teachers the specific areas where students might be struggling, and they can reveal patterns among whole classes that show educators what is and isn’t getting through to their students.
Supporters of the A-F model say the grading system is about transparency. But transparency is better accomplished simply by showing scores, year-over-year progress and graduation rates, not by slapping an imprecise grade on all of it. Doing that accomplishes little more than embarrassment.
We wonder, though, if that’s exactly what some lawmakers have in mind as they try to steer the state toward more charters, more private school vouchers, and less public education. If emphasizing failure is part of that plan, then lawmakers have earned themselves an A.