State test scores released by the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction last Thursday showed growth following the pandemic for a majority of schools — 70% — across the state. The headline lawmakers and media outlets chose to focus on, however, was that one out of every three schools in the state is now considered “low-performing.”
The accountability model approved by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2013 labels schools with “D” or “F” grades that either met or did not meet growth expectations as low-performing. Schools are graded with a formula calculated using 80% of a school’s achievement score and 20% of growth. Those two metrics are then converted to a 100-point scale.
Chatham County has five “low-performing” schools based on the 2021-22 scores — Bonlee School, Chatham Middle, Jordan Matthews High School, Siler City Elementary and Virginia Cross Elementary. In the prior year, only Chatham Middle was in the “low-performing” category. Statewide, new results give 864 schools in N.C. a “low-performing” designation, up by 376 from 2018-19. (NCDPI did not issue performance grades in 2020-2021 due to pandemic challenges.)
The designation of “low-performing,” however, has been criticized in recent years because it is disproportionately seen in schools with higher populations of minority students and schools with fewer economic resources.
“I will ask that no one else refer to these schools as low-performing schools — they are schools designated as low performing,” Deputy State Superintendent Michael Maher said while co-presenting the data. “Why does that matter? Because they are designated based on a formula that prioritizes proficiency, and we are seeing lower rates of proficiency due to the pandemic. It is not an accurate reflection of the efforts and progress of teachers and school leaders throughout this state.”
Maher said the idea of revisiting the accountability model is not to discourage proficiency, but rather to assess students as whole people instead of as the result of one test.
State Board of Education Vice-Chairperson Alan Duncan echoed those sentiments. He told members of the accountability committee that the focus should continue to be on growth rather than proficiency because he believes growth is what moves students forward.
The new statewide proficiency rates are also much lower than before the pandemic, but state education leaders have cautioned against comparing the results due to educational changes and challenges brought on by COVID-19.
The results are also widely varied because of limited amounts of in-person instruction. Additionally, some high school students took the exams months after they completed the course because of COVID safety concerns. The U.S. Dept. of Education had waived the need for states to test students in the 2019-20 school year but required it for last school year to assess the extent of learning loss.
An overhaul needed?
Among state and local education advocates, there is some debate the accountability model is due for a total overhaul. Mary Kolek, board chairperson of the Chatham Education Foundation, said issues in education are too systemic to be determined or understood solely through test score data.
“Issues that are broader than reactions to annual test scores and school ratings are long term and significant and need to be addressed at the state level and understood at the local level,” Kolek told the News + Record. “Current accountability measures, notoriously, are reflective of socio-economic factors, placing schools serving less affluent and less well-resourced families and students at a disadvantage and doing them harm by labeling them and their schools with low or failing grades.”
The North Carolina Justice Center, which aims to improve equity and eliminate poverty in the state, also said the accountability model has frequently been used as “a legislative tool for stigmatizing non-white schools.”
The Justice Center and other education advocacy organizations argue metrics like the accountability model, and especially school performance grades, have been used by Republican lawmakers to promote an increase in private and charter schools and decrease pay for public school educators.
“North Carolina’s SPG system needlessly stigmatizes schools that serve Black, brown and Native students,” a 2021 report from the Justice Center reads. “Schools enrolling such students are much more likely to receive ‘failing’ grades than schools that are disproportionately white and Asian.”
The organization said it doesn’t have to be this way. The Justice Center believes North Carolina should adopt alternative approaches that move beyond test-based measures to include further variables. A survey by EdNC showed 90% of participants believe a school’s performance grade should include metrics beyond just student achievement and student growth.
According to EdNC, the number of charter schools in the state has grown from 107 in 2013 to 203 now. During that same period, the amount of state funding for private school vouchers has grown from about $50 million to about $120 million for next year.
Since the data has been released, some lawmakers have already used the test score data in hopes of scoring political points. Oral arguments for the Leandro case, which would provide billions of dollars toward public school funding to ensure sound, basic education for all, took place last week. At the arguments, an attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore said the test scores don’t prove a need for the funding.