Fewer than half of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools received A’s or B’s as the state issued letter grades to each campus in North Carolina for the first time Thursday.
But CMS did have a larger percentage of schools with those high grades than the state as a whole. District leaders said they accepted the grades but stressed they don’t fully reflect progress that has been made in historically struggling schools. In Charlotte and across the state, low grades were primarily given to schools with high concentrations of low-income students.
The grades primarily measure the percentage of students proficient on state tests but take into account how scores are improving to a lesser extent. Grades for high schools also incorporate their graduation rate.
The grade distribution in CMS:
• 17 schools received an A (11 percent).
• 47 schools received a B (30 percent).
• 46 schools received a C (29 percent).
• 36 schools received a D (23 percent).
• 11 schools received an F (7 percent).
Scores will likely be lower in CMS next year when the grading scale changes to become more rigorous. By that measure, more than half of CMS schools would have received D or F grades.
Q. Why is this controversial?
A. The formula used to assign grades has made the requirement controversial from the time it was put into law in 2012. Critics say it gives unduly low grades to schools with high percentages of low-income students, who tend to perform worse on standardized tests. Even though scores may be rising rapidly at those schools, they can still earn failing grades.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials have lobbied for the state to take student progress into account more than their proficiency. Right now, proficiency accounts for 80 percent of the grade, and growth 20 percent. CMS wants that to be 50-50.
Supporters of the system, which is in place in 16 states, say it adds to transparency about school quality.
Democratic Party lawmakers have pushed to amend the way schools are graded. State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat and former CMS administrator, said the grades unfairly affected high-poverty schools and said the state rushed too quickly in creating the grading system.
“At a time when our state is actively recruiting jobs, these school labels will negatively impact economic development and reduce interest in our state. That is not good for North Carolina,” she said in a statement.
Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, called the letter grades “a positive first step to provide North Carolina’s parents, communities and policymakers with a clear measure of what matters most: our students’ academic achievement.”
Q. What does CMS have to say?
A. Superintendent Ann Clark described the letter grades as a snapshot, one that paints an accurate picture but leaves out progress being made.
“We’re going to be about continuous improvement,” she said. “We’re going to acknowledge that we have work to do. We’re going to celebrate some tremendous successes across the district.”
Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said he is leading a project to come up with another method for evaluating CMS campuses that takes score growth, school culture and closing achievement gaps more into account.
Barnes also said that the letter grades reflect last year’s performance, not what’s going on this year.
“We’re making marked investments in a number of schools to help them improve,” he said.
Q. What about the failing schools?
A. Schools that receive a D or F must inform parents by letter. Clark said administrators would try to put the grades in context.
“As for a student, a failing grade or a disappointing grade is one grade on one paper or test. It does not reflect the cumulative effort that they might make in a course,” Clark said.
“I take seriously the grade that every single school in this district received. I want to make sure we as a district and a community are supporting each and every one of those schools in getting better. Regardless of your grade, there’s an opportunity to get better.”
She said the district would continue to apply its “best thinking” to improving performance at struggling schools.
The K-8 Westerly Hills Academy in west Charlotte received a score of 42, which earns a D this year. Principal Gwen Shannon said she’s still proud of the work the school is doing.
“We’re going to, as sure as you can believe, work harder, work more effectively and work smarter to grow those students every day, close the gap and overcome barriers they may have so that they can achieve,” she said. “It does not by any means define the work that the parents, the staff, my partners or our scholars do in a given day.”
Q. What’s happening with the grading scale?
A. In this first year, schools were graded on a 15-point scale, meaning scores as low as 85 merit an A, as low as 70 receive a B, and so on.
In following years, the grading will switch to a 10-point scale. Had that scale been used this year, 64 schools in CMS would have received failing grades. Some of those schools got C grades this year.
An additional 29 schools would have received a D under a normal 10-point scale.
Q. How did the state do?
A. The state Department of Public Instruction presented its data to the State Board of Education on Thursday. The grade distribution statewide:
• 132 schools received an A (5 percent)
• 582 schools received a B (24 percent)
• 1,003 schools received a C (41 percent)
• 561 schools received a D (23 percent)
• 146 schools received an F (6 percent)
Other districts in the state pushed back much harder against the system. Guilford County Schools sent out a statement dismissing them as “misleading to the public and a potential distraction from the important work of teaching and learning in its schools.”
Q. Why didn’t my school get a grade?
A. Seven of the 164 CMS schools did not receive a grade Thursday. Because they were calculated from last year’s standardized tests, the four new schools that opened this fall weren’t included. Three alternative schools also weren’t graded.
Only elementary and middle schools received specific grades for reading and math. High schools did not.