News: CJ Exclusives

Friday Interview: Assessing New A-F School Grades

JLF’s Stoops labels new system helpful for parents, taxpayers

Parents are used to report cards for their school-aged kids. Now, in North Carolina, public schools themselves receive letter grades, A through F. Supporters tout a vast improvement in transparency for parents and taxpayers. Critics say the grades offer an unfair assessment of school performance. Dr. Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation director of research education studies, discussed the issue with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Martinez: Why are we grading schools A through F?

Stoops: Well, in a way it’s something we have always done. We have always designated school performance, just not using school grades. We had a system whereby, depending on how the school performed on state standardized tests, we would call them schools of progress, schools of excellence, low-performing schools.

This is just a variation of that, and instead of using labels that few parents understand, we are using letter grades, A through F. These are grades that any parent could understand. They understand how it works, and they know that it reflects a performance of the schools on standardized tests.

Martinez: And if your child comes home with a grade for his or her school of an A, you instantly know they are doing quite well. And conversely, if they come home with an F, you know that there is some trouble brewing.

Stoops: That’s exactly right. And if you think about it, in the previous system that we had, a student could come home and say, “We are a school of progress.” You think about the word “progress,” and it has a nice connotation, but that’s one of the lowest rankings for a school under the old system.

So that’s among the many things that made it confusing through the years, and I think this is a very sensible alternative to a system of evaluating schools that we have had for some time.

Martinez: What do the school grades actually measure?

Stoops: They measure two things primarily: 80 percent of the grade is based on student performance on standardized tests; 20 percent is based on student growth. In other words, it looks at how well students preformed on tests in math and science and social studies and all the other tests that are given, and then 20 percent determines exactly if the student is growing one grade level throughout the year.

We have a system in North Carolina called EVAAS, which looks at value-added scores, which is basically looking at student growth. This is one of the contentious debates about the school grades — whether growth should count as more than 20 percent of the grade.

Some people believe that they should be 50/50. Others believe that growth should be the largest part of the grade. Most of the debate is not necessarily about the grades themselves, but about the formula used behind the grades.

Martinez: Before we get to some potential improvements in that formula, let’s talk about the results [released earlier this year.] What do we know?

Stoops: We know that most of the top schools were high schools, and that’s because the high schools were calculated using a lot of different variables — not only test scores on the traditional state tests, but ACT scores and graduation rates and those various sorts of things.

For example, some of the best schools, according to the school grading system, are Burke Middle College, Raleigh Charter High School — mainly high schools that cater to higher-performing students, but still do extremely well when it comes to all these multiple measures.

Martinez: Should North Carolina parents of school kids be pleased with these results, overall?

Stoops: It depends on what grade their school received. If you look at the distribution of grades, this is a very interesting thing, because around 1,000 schools got C’s and that was, by far, the most. Then if you look at the D’s and the B’s, we are looking at about 550, around 600 schools for each of those. And then A’s and F’s, we had about 150 schools.

It’s fairly evenly distributed. It’s not as if most of the schools received A’s and B’s. As you would expect, most schools received C’s, and then it went down from there. There are schools that did extremely well. The top middle schools in the state, for example, were two middle schools in Union County. A parent should be extremely pleased with the performance of those schools.

Schools across the state, and especially in the western part of the state, we had a large number of elementary schools getting A’s and B’s. They should be pleased with that. It should also be noted that this is based on a very comfortable grading scale. For this year, it’s 15-point grading scale.

Martinez: What does that mean?

Stoops: An A is basically an 85 to 100. …

Martinez: What kind of reaction has this new grading system received?

Stoops: Just what you would expect from the education establishment: They are mad that schools are being graded. They are upset that the grading scale doesn’t take into account growth more. They call it punitive and an attempt to embarrass schools.

So just about every complaint you could possibly imagine has been levied on this A-through-F system.

But you know what? I haven’t heard a complaint from one single parent, and I think that’s what’s important because while you have the special-interest groups and the advocacy groups that come out against these school grades and call them all sorts of names and try to discount them, parents actually find it quite useful.

And those are the people that matter — not the complaining interest group that goes into Raleigh and tries to get more money for their main constituents — but the parents. And now that the parents have a sense of how their schools are performing, parents are going to demand improvement, or they are going to demand choices. Hopefully, they get both.

Martinez: Let’s talk a little bit more about improving this grading system. You have talked a bit about the debate over how much growth should be factored into this. What should legislators do, going forward, to tighten this up a bit?

Stoops: I think it would make sense to go to a 50/50 calculation: 50 percent on performance and 50 percent on growth. In fact, a lot of the complaints we have heard from those who oppose this sort of grading scale say that, or at least imply, that they would be satisfied if the calculation included a higher percentage of growth.

If that’s the case and you can get everyone on board with a 50/50 split, then by all means these legislators should do it. Change it to 50 percent growth, 50 percent performance, and then change it to the 10-point grading scale. [This would require a higher score for a school to receive an A.] …

Martinez: Have you heard any reaction from folks saying, “Look, we should just do away with this altogether, it’s just too unfair on its face?”

Stoops: Of course. These are mostly those who have a vested interest in making our schools look good, or at least seem like they are performing well. Those who claim that our public schools are not failing, of course they want to make it seem like our public schools are doing great and they need more money. Unfortunately — and this is what this grading scale reveals — not all of our schools are going well. We should be very honest about what kind of performance our schools are having.