North Carolina needs to improve its high school accountability system. A relic of the No Child Left Behind era, it has a critical flaw: It encourages schools to focus on their lowest-performing students’ progress. That’s a worthy and important objective, but it shouldn’t be the only outcome for which they’re held responsible.
This shortcoming is particularly pernicious for high-achieving poor and minority children, who deserve better and are critical to North Carolina’s – and our nation’s – competitiveness. They’re the most dependent on the school system to cultivate their potential, yet it is failing them. This is a tragedy, particularly at a time when North Carolina is struggling to help these students complete college and rise to leadership positions. For instance, only 22 percent of black students attending the state’s four-year public universities graduate on time. Meanwhile, the state is spending almost $46 million yearly on “remedial education,” high-school level courses college freshmen take because they aren’t ready for college.
A new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gives Raleigh policymakers a rare opportunity to set schools on the right path for years ahead. They now enjoy greater leeway to design a school accountability system that will work for all students by turning annual test results and other information into sound judgments of school effectiveness.
Specifically, when North Carolina submits its new accountability system to the Department of Education for approval in the coming year, it should include three components ensuring all kids count.
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First, it should rate high schools using a model giving additional credit for students achieving at a high level – today’s system doesn’t. Under ESSA, North Carolina must keep tracking the percentage of students who reach proficiency on annual tests, but the state can give schools incentives for students with high marks. Policymakers could, for example, create an “achievement index” giving partial credit for getting students to “basic,” full credit for getting them to “proficient,” and additional credit for getting them to “advanced.”
Second, the system should keep measuring individual students’ growth year to year, but make this count for at least as much as achievement. Under the state’s current system, achievement counts for 80 percent of a high school’s summative rating; all students’ growth counts for just 20 percent. Growth measures do a better job of capturing schools’ effect on student achievement than proficiency rates, which are tied to student demographics, family circumstance and prior achievement.
Finally, North Carolina should encourage high schools to help able students earn college credit by measuring the percentage of students succeeding in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and/or dual-enrollment programs – among the best ways to challenge high performers.
Raleigh policymakers should use their newfound flexibility responsibly. Given their freedom under the new federal law to fix past flaws, now is the time to ensure all students get the education they deserve. High-achievers, especially those in poverty, need all the attention they can get. But for too long they’ve been an afterthought – a fate no child should suffer. Let’s not make the same mistake again.
Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon L. Wright are president and editorial director, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.