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Even in Correcting the Story on School Grades, News Media still get it Wrong

This week several media outlets goofed when they reported the North Carolina legislature’s plan to report school performance using letter grades based on a 15-point scale. First, they presented the policy as a change, even though the policy has been in practice for years. Second, they failed to emphasize that the scale applied to grades given to schools, not individual students. Fretting that the state is lowering academic standards, people took to social media and the story spread, giving fresh (but inaccurate) material for anyone with an interest in mocking schools in North Carolina, including talk show host Seth Meyers.

Media outlets are trying to rectify the problem, but they are missing the real story. Take, for example, WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station. This morning it clarified that the policy “involves the grading scale used to assess how schools, not students, are performing” and “it doesn’t apply to students.”

But those statements are not entirely true. The grading scale in question actually does assess how students are performing and it does apply to students. In fact, one could argue that it applies to students more than it applies to schools.

The distinction comes down to the formula used to generate those school letter grades. Using the End-of-Grade tests from third through eighth grades and End-of-Course tests in high school, the NC Department of Public Instruction assigns letter grades based partly on how many students in a school pass the exams and partly on how much better students did in the current year than in previous years. The first component is often called “achievement” and the second “growth”.

Because students are different and some schools serve populations with disproportionately more obstacles such as poverty or learning disabilities, raising the achievement measure can be more difficult in some schools than others. A high-poverty school could make remarkable academic progress that does not move the dial on achievement because so many of their students have so far to go.

Growth scores are supposed to address that issue with an assessment of the value added by a school. Using the same tests, by determining whether students are doing better, the same, or worse than in previous years, the state can assess whether the school is helping students make progress. In other words, while achievement describes student performance, growth describes school performance.

To see how these different measures might favor some schools more than others, consider Title I schools, which are schools identified as having high proportions of students in poverty. According to data from NCDPI, Title I schools in North Carolina earned an average growth score of 77.6 last year, similar to the average growth score of 76.6 earned by non-Title I schools. But on the achievement measure, Title I schools averaged only 54.2 while non-Title I averaged 70.9. In other words, while Title I schools are making as much progress as other schools, their achievement scores do not reflect it.

Here’s the kicker: when combining school achievement and school growth scores to produce the school performance score that will determine the letter grade the school gets (using that 15-point scale), school achievement counts four times as much as school growth. Because achievement counts so much more, 34% of Title I schools received a D or F compared to only 5% of non-Title I schools, despite the fact that both groups performed similarly in terms of how much their students grew.

When news media explain that these grades are for schools, not students, they are correct in that the grade applies to the entire school and does not appear on students’ report cards. But they are ignoring the fact that because achievement counts for so much more than growth, the letter grade granted to the schools is more a reflection of the students who attend the school than it is the progress the school is helping those students to make.

It doesn’t really matter whether schools are judged on a 15- or 10-point scale. Such benchmarks are arbitrary. What is more important is the question of whether these letter grades truly reflect the progress made by a school’s students, teachers, and staff. Do we want to judge a school based on the challenges faced by the population it serves, or how much the school does to help them overcome those obstacles? And who benefits from the current formula? It certainly isn’t the Title I schools.

Dr. Giersch is an assistant professor who teaches courses on American politics, research methods, state and local politics, and education policy. His research focuses on education policy, specifically the areas of school choice, high-stakes testing, segregation, and teacher quality.

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