School grading system deserves F

First Posted: 5/12/2015

Lost in all the buzz in Raleigh about the surprising state revenue surplus was a vote last week in the Senate to continue to stigmatize public schools with high percentages of low-income students and the teachers who work hard every day trying to help them.

During debate last Thursday to continue the current 15 point A-F grading system for public schools, Senate leaders refused to allow any discussion on an amendment by Sen. Josh Stein to adjust how the grading system works. Currently 80 percent of a school’s letter grade is determined by student performance on a standardized test and 20 percent by the improvement in test scores from year to year.

When the school letter grades were released for the first time earlier this year, 97.9 percent of the schools that received a D or F had more than 50 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch. Many of those schools saw improvements on test scores but received a poor grade nonetheless and were branded a failure in their communities.

Education advocates and legislators of both political parties have acknowledged the formula is flawed and needs to be adjusted to give more weight to how much students improve. Otherwise low-income schools will always struggle to achieve a high grade no matter how much progress they make.

The A-F grading system is not new. It’s already in place in several states thanks to education “reformers,” though its inherent problems are already prompting changes. The Republican General Assembly in Virginia recently repealed the A-F grading system outright.

Stein’s amendment would have changed the way the grade is calculated, basing 50 percent of it on test scores and 50 percent on year to year improvement. That’s the exact approach mentioned by several Republican lawmakers and supported by many advocates for education as a first step toward improving the punitive system.

But Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca used a parliamentary move to bury Stein’s amendment with no debate at all, saying he hadn’t heard any complaints from parents and only a few objections from teachers and principals.

The Senate voted along party lines with Apodaca to table Stein’s proposal, making it all but certain that when the grades are released next year, low-income schools and the teachers who work there will once again be told they are failures, no matter how hard they are working or how many of students improve academically.

The ranking doesn’t really grade schools at all, it simply notes which schools have a lot of low-income students. It also doesn’t prompt more funding from the state or teams of experts to help the struggling the students.

The only thing the D or F grade triggers at a school is a letter to every student’s parents informing them that the school received a low grade.

It almost makes you wonder about the motivation behind the program. Is it simply to give parents more information or is it to give them another reason to leave the traditional public school system for charters or private schools supported by taxpayer-funded vouchers?

It’s hard not to be suspicious when Senate leaders won’t even allow a discussion about making the system fairer to students and teachers, not to mention the lack of any meaningful response to low grades.

The schools don’t get extra help. The teachers don’t get smaller classes or more support. They all just get branded with a demoralizing F — just the way Apodaca and his colleagues in the Senate leadership apparently want it.