News: CJ Exclusives

House-Passed Bill Could End Final Exams

Measure changing formula for school letter grades passes chamber as well

North Carolina students no longer would be required to take final exams under a bill passed by the House 116-2 on Tuesday, with supporters of House Bill 248 saying the tests vary from district-to-district, making it impossible to compare results across district lines.

Yielding to criticism from educators and parents, the House passed another bill recalibrating the criteria used to reflect a school’s performance under the A to F letter grade scale.

“There is no consistency among school districts any longer,” state Rep. Brian Holloway R-Stokes, said in presenting H.B. 248 in the House Education K-12 Committee early Tuesday. Some districts use the state test while others have received waivers to create their own, making comparisons invalid.

“It’s my understanding … that the State Board of Education is not collecting this data any longer. It’s not information they are interested in,” he said.

He reminded committee members that the state is testing students in eighth, 10th, and 11th grades on the ACT exam “to make sure that they are growing and maturing in their education as they should be.”

The bill also would modify one the six components of the annual evaluation process of teachers, pending approval by the U.S. Department of Education. Standard 6 was derived from measuring the value a teacher adds to students based on student growth over a three-year period of final exam scores.

“If you’re starting to look at things like differentiated pay and other measures, this would not be a good instrument to use because it is not consistent from county to county,” Holloway said during floor debate.

Standard 6 instead would be judged on areas other than final exam scores.

“The authors of this bill appear to be confident that the U.S. Department of Education will permit North Carolina to evaluate teachers in this manner. I am not so sure,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies and research at the John Locke Foundation.

“That said, it’s ridiculous that North Carolina’s education officials have to ask the federal government for permission to make a change in the way the state evaluates teachers,” Stoops said. “It is an unpleasant reminder that bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., control key aspects of North Carolina’s public school system.”

The final exams were flawed and inconsistent, but an important component to teacher evaluation, he said.

“Regrettably, legislators are rolling back accountability measures that are designed to improve classroom instruction,” and should be looking for ways to improve the exams, not scrap them, Stoops said.

House Bill 803 dealing with school performance scores passed the House on a 113-3 vote.

School performance now is rated on a scale that bases 80 percent of its score on student achievement and 20 percent on student growth, “and this bill changes it to 50 percent for each one of them,” said bill sponsor Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, chairwoman of the House Education K-12 Committee, during floor debate.

The current school performance grading system, and the changes incorporated in the bill, will remain “all stick and no carrot,” said Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange.

“It’s a system that feels punitive and doesn’t give much guidance on what schools should improve, and it reduces everything that goes into a good education down to a couple of very simplistic scores,” Meyer said. “Our schools so far don’t appreciate it very much.”

Meyer said the state “should be working to figure out how to make a system that gives some incentives for schools to change and reach for things that we know will help them be more effective, not just labels that bring everything that all of those great teachers, and students, and families do down to a simple letter grade.”

“There’s little consensus across the state, and especially across the country, as to what measures we ought to be using” to assess schools by letter grades, said Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland.

By giving equal 50 percent weight to a school’s performance on tests, and year-over-year student growth “we are halfway right, and hopefully we will get it right sooner or later,” Lucas said. “Very few people are satisfied in the state as it now stands.”

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, like Lucas and Johnson a primary sponsor of the bill, said during committee debate that the school grading system came from Florida, which has changed its formula 34 times.

He said legislative research staff and the National Conference of State Legislatures determined from a national survey that Arizona, Maine, and Oklahoma use a 50-50 split between growth and proficiency. Utah has a 50 percent performance and 50 percent growth split, but the growth is divided between performing and nonperforming students.

New Mexico uses 40 percent performance, 50 percent growth, and 10 percent other factors, Glazier said. Mississippi and Ohio incorporate six factors in deciding A to F, and South Carolina has five components. Michigan has a complicated color scheme instead of letter grades, and Virginia just repealed its A-to-F system.

House Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, said during floor debate he was voting for the bill, but reluctantly.

“Going from 80-20 to 50-50 is better, but still it’s averaging two things which are not capable of being averaged. They’re not even on the same scale,” Stam said. “They measure different things, and mixing them is just a mish-mash,” so to average them “lacks rigor.”

“What we need to do is have two grades, one for achievement, and one for growth,” he said. “Sort of like in bonds, you have AAA or AB bonds, or B-plus or whatever. I’m hoping that when this bill comes back from the Senate, common sense will prevail, and we will have a double grade.”

“I welcome the proposed change to the way the state calculates school performance grades,” Stoops said. “Academic growth is arguably just as important as student achievement scores.”

If the proposed change is approved, “lawmakers then need to stop tinkering with the grading system. Otherwise, we will never be able to make year-to-year comparisons, which is a key component of grading schools,” Stoops said.

“North Carolinians want to know if their neighborhood school is making progress,” he said. “Frequent changes to the system impede their ability to do so.”

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.