Lawmakers wise to reform state’s school grade scale

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Good for the state Senate for — finally — joining the N.C. House of Representatives in efforts to change the state’s unfair grading system for public schools.

For several years, the House has supported legislation to modify the grading system, only to see it die in the Senate. This year, though, senators have unanimously voted in favor of a bill directing the state school superintendent and the State Board of Education to come up with recommendations as to whether and how to improve the school grading system.

Change is overdue. The House and Senate should iron out the differences in their versions of the bill, and state school officials should use this opportunity to fix a system that’s doing more harm than good.

Back in 2013, legislators came up with the idea that schools should get letter grades — A through F — the same way schoolchildren do. Republican leaders in the legislature, who love to dictate testing and grades for the public schools, have said giving an easily understood letter grade is a good way to help parents know how their children’s schools are doing.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with schools being held accountable for their performance. But, as usual, the devil is in the details, and there’s plenty to criticize in the way the current system determines which school gets a good grade and which is labeled as failing.

The system bases 80% of a school’s grade on standardized test scores. Only 20% of a grade reflects the measured growth, or academic improvement, of the students.

The result of this overly simplistic and unfairly weighted system is that schools that have a lot of students who struggle in school get a bad grade, no matter how much the school is helping those children improve.

Schools that start out with a large percentage of children who do well in school — and test well — are the A schools.

There’s little room for an “E’’ for “Effort” or extra credit for “Improvement” in this system, and yet those are important factors.

It’s well documented that many of the schools with lower test scores are in poor communities. These are the schools that get bad grades, and yet many of them are schools where teachers are overcoming steep odds to help children learn and make progress. Helping children who don’t have many resources or much support improve in a way that might help them have a better future doesn’t seem to count. Certainly, it doesn’t count as much as it should.

When a school is slapped with a bad grade, it is stigmatized. It’s known as a bad school, and parents who have the means to do so may pull their children out. Supportive families looking for a place to live may avoid that school district. Strong teachers who could help may be discouraged from seeking jobs there, not wanting to be in a problem school, one where they may be judged by their students’ low test scores.

You get the picture. Labeling a school as bad creates a self-fulfilling cycle of failure. Then politicians point to “failing schools” as an excuse for more school choice and vouchers, rather than advocating more support for schools in poor areas.

Legislators and state officials should make good on this chance to fix their failing grading system and work for real improvement.