What’s our grade? School leaders anticipate release of state grades

The 1.5 million children enrolled in North Carolina’s public schools this year will not be the only ones receiving grades soon. State officials plan to release a performance-based, letter-graded report card for each school, starting Feb. 5, and for some education leaders in the Asheville area, anticipation is high.

Chip Craig, vice chairman of the Buncombe County School Board, has two children currently enrolled in one of the county’s public high schools. “From what I hear, it’s going to be a majority of Cs and below. Very few A’s,” Craig said. “They just made up a scale. It’s arbitrary. I think the purpose is to make public schools look bad. It’s the only thing I can figure.”

In a letter sent to parents and guardians of children in the Buncombe County school system in September, administrators explained the changes in the rating system, saying that the new grading system would enable them to describe the school’s “overall academic performance and growth.”

According to the letter, the February report cards will also provide district and statewide information, including data about reported acts of violence and crime, as well as teacher turnover rates.

The standardized letter was distributed in a number of other North Carolina public school districts including Cumberland, Davidson, and Person Counties and Whiteville City.

In part, it read, “At the end of the day, we share the responsibility of preparing your student for the next grade or the next challenge after high school. The accountability model is one way to measure how well schools are meeting this challenge for your student.”

Retired teacher and current Buncombe County School Board Chairman Ann Franklin said she thinks the grades given by the N.C. General Assembly will reflect the socioeconomic composition of the school’s population more than its success in student learning.

“I have reason to believe that there will be a close correlation between the letter grade of the school and its socioeconomic situation, not the classroom success,” she said. “I believe that will be evident for anyone that is willing to look once those grades come out.”

Craig said he expects the free- and reduced-lunch program to negatively sway the grades given to each school. “The higher the number of students on free and reduced lunch, the lower the score will be,” Craig said.

According to a July press release from The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, children from a three-person household with income amounting to less than $2,144 per month qualify for free lunches during the 2014-15 school year. All children living in foster care also receive free lunches.

The most recent data from DPI showed that 13,911 families in the Buncombe County and Asheville City school systems combined applied for free lunches for the 2012-13 school year. An additional 2,208 families in the region applied for reduced lunches that same year.

Craig said he expects public schools throughout North Carolina to experience similarly skewed scores as a result of socioeconomic status.

“I think we’ll do better, or as well, as anybody in the state, but I’m sure we’ll have some schools rated C and below,” he said.

Peggy Dalman, vice chairman of the Asheville City Board of Education, said she is mostly optimistic about the grades Asheville schools will be given on Feb. 5.

“I suspect we’ll have a couple of schools — maybe one or two — who are not as successful as we would like them to be,” she said.

Dalman said she is not a big fan of the new grading system and feels that 80 percent of the grade is an improper amount of weight placed on the end-of-course test results of the school’s students. She said she thinks more than 20 percent of the grade should be based on the individual growth of the students, because some students do not come in with the background knowledge necessary.

“Even though [the teachers] have gotten them to do a grade and a half in one year, they won’t get very much credit for that,” Dalman said.

She said the biggest strength, as well as challenge, in the Asheville City school system is the diversity of the student body. Often, she said, there is large gap between the performance of the highest-achieving students and the lowest-achieving students.

“I think it skews the results for those schools that have high poverty, high at-risk, or any kind of kids that struggle,” she said.

Members of both local school boards have already discounted the credibility of those grades, based on the ambiguous grading system.

“It’s wrong,” Franklin said. “Some of our strongest teachers, and our strongest education, happens in our low socioeconomic settings because the teacher has to overcome the deficit that the child comes to school with, as well as moving that child on [to the next grade]. I think it’s a fallacy that we are not acknowledging that.”

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About Rachel Ingram
Rachel freelances for Mountain Xpress. She still can't believe she gets paid to meet new people and explore Western North Carolina on her days off from her "real" job as a direct care provider at a residential treatment center for youth (which she also thoroughly enjoys). To round it out, she also likes to drink wine, swim, backpack and cook, but not in that order.

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