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NC superintendent says four grades for schools would be better than one

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and Deputy Superintendent Michael Maher talk about school performance grades at Monday's meeting of the House Select Committee on Education Reform.
NC General Assembly stream
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and Deputy Superintendent Michael Maher talk about school performance grades at Monday's meeting of the House Select Committee on Education Reform.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt on Monday outlined a revamped system for grading public schools. She told the House Select Committee on Education Reform that the current system of A-to-F letter grades, based primarily on test scores, provides little useful information for the public and little support for schools that need it.

“We have to do more than simply look at test scores that occur on one day of the year,” she said.

The grading system has been under fire for years, from educators, advocates and elected officials from both parties who say the grades say more about the advantages students arrive with than the quality of education at any given school. Truitt has been leading talks on how to improve them for the last two years, with input from dozens of superintendents and charter school leaders.

In a presentation to the committee, Truitt and her staff argued that North Carolina identifies more schools as low-performing than Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, other states that issue schools a single letter grade. But national exams show students in those states seldom outperform North Carolina in reading and math.

This year North Carolina identified more than 800 schools as low-performing. Truitt said state and federal laws set up different labels, and one principal might end up writing three separate school improvement plans. But the Department of Public Instruction doesn’t have the staff to follow up, she said.

“So those plans sit in cyberspace,” she said. “No one is minding the shop. No one is ensuring that a local principal is in fact carrying out that school improvement plan — or if they are doing it no one is helping them measure whether it works or not.”

Four categories proposed

The plan Truitt outlined would give each school four grades:

  • A proficiency grade would reflect the percent of students passing state reading, math and science exams. That accounts for 80% of the current letter grades, and often reflects the level of advantage or disadvantage among students. D and F grades almost always go to high-poverty schools with a lot of Black and Latino students. But Truitt said it’s important for people to know proficiency levels.
  • A progress grade would represent the gains students made, as reflected by a growth calculation, which is currently used to account for 20% of a school’s grade. High growth ratings may recognize a school making progress with struggling students or helping advantaged students keep moving up.
  • A readiness grade would reflect preparation for success after high school. In elementary schools that would mean exposing students to career exploration. In middle school that would mean crafting plans for high school and beyond. In high school that would reflect graduation rates and the percent of seniors who indicate they’ve enrolled in college, got a job offer or enlisted in the military. This grade would require creating data systems that don’t exist now.
  • An opportunity grade would reflect chronic absenteeism, teacher survey results and the number of sports, clubs and other enrichment activities available. It would also require compiling new data.
    North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

Timing and cost

Truitt said she’ll ask the General Assembly to approve a pilot to start this fall, using districts and charter schools that volunteer. After that, she’d like to see the old and new systems both run in 2025-26, with full conversion to the new system in 2026-27.

She told the House panel there wouldn’t be any cost for the pilot, though she didn’t explain how the new data systems would be created. But once the new system ramps up, Truitt said she’ll ask for money to hire more staff to ensure that schools get help to improve.

Committee members peppered her with questions and suggestions. They didn’t take action but seemed generally supportive.

“This is something that’s been looked at for many, many years now,” Rep. Brian Biggs, a Randolph County Republican who co-chairs the committee, said in his introduction. “We’re going to get a transparent view of what’s happening in our schools and how we’re gauging our schools.”

“It’s exciting for me to know maybe we are going to set the standard towards the correct way to evaluate education,” Rep. Maria Cervania, a Wake County Democrat, said after the presentation.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.