Monday, June 17, 2024

Low-performing? State releases potential new ways to evaluate public schools

Forest Hills Elementary, were the controversial 'first come, first serve' Spanish Immersion enrollment program took place. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Forest Hills Global Elementary is one school marked low-performing in last year’s state accountability report. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Local low-performing schools could be reexamined under a new lens per recommendations from state education leaders.

READ MORE: State report marks one-third NHC schools ‘low-performing,’ more than double pre-pandemic

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released a report last week detailing the progress being made toward a new school accountability system — one not anchored around test scores.  

The department has distributed A through F letter grades to every traditional and charter school in the state based 80% on student performance and 20% on students meeting academic growth thresholds. Last year, the first report cards were released since the 2018-2019 school year as students recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The report revealed significant drops in achievement for schools across the state; one-third of New Hanover County Schools were low-performing, meaning they received a D or F and did not exceed growth benchmarks. Eleven out of 42 total schools are recurring on low-performing, meaning they have failed to meet state standards two of the last three years. Several local charter schools — Wilmington Preparatory Academy, Classical Charter Schools of Wilmington, American Leadership Academy — are also continually low-performing.

Pender County has eight out of 19 total schools marked recurring low-performing schools, while five out of 20 were reported in Brunswick County. 

The system has not been popular among educators, parents, and school board members who argue the report card does not capture the entire picture. Across the state, a significant number of schools that earn Ds and Fs have a substantial population of students identified as economically disadvantaged.

“That grading method really honestly affects how people live, where they live, and you know, wherever they decide to move,” NHC school board member Stephanie Walker said. “It just piles on, you know, the kind of perception that this school was maybe a bad school or not a good school for their kids to go to… it perpetuates the whole stereotype stuff.” 

Port City Daily also reached out to new board members Pat Bradford, Josie Barnhart and Melissa Mason, who all ran on platforms to improve academic performance and accountability last year. Bradford declined to respond, while no response was received from the other two. 

In September 2022, NCDPI charged a committee of education practitioners, policy experts and leaders to evaluate a different method. According to its report released this week, the committee recommended eight other indicators to demonstrate school quality, including: 

  • Five-year cohort graduation rate: The percentage of students who fulfill graduation requirements within five years of entering grade 9
  • Chronic absenteeism: The percentage of students who exceed a specified number of absences deemed to be chronic
  • Improvement in student group performance: Measures of subgroup performance as defined by growth targets and actual outcomes
  • Post-secondary inputs:
    • Elementary: Percentage of students who participate in a career exploration activity
  • Middle: Percentage of students who have a career development plan.
  • High school: Percentage of students who fulfill at least one of a defined list of postsecondary preparation programs/classes/certifications
  • Postsecondary outcomes: Percentage of graduates who either have confirmed acceptance or enrollment in a postsecondary institution, enlistment in the military, or employed
  • Extra/Intra Curricular: Percentage of students who participate in at least one extracurricular or intra-curricular activity
  • Durable Skills: Informed by the developing rubrics for the competencies defined by the Portrait of a Graduate initiative
  • School Climate: Possibly a student, teacher and parent survey instrument

According to Deputy State Superintendent Michael Maher, the department is not asking for any change to the 80/20 weights model at this time, despite a number of calls from parents and educators to modify them.

“In a new multi-indicator model, specific weights will be assigned to each indicator, which could impact the current 80/20,” Maher said. “We are not yet to the point of determining which indicators will be used nor the weight assigned to each indicator.”  

The General Assembly moved to the A-F model for the 2013-2014 school year to satisfy federal and state markers; the former requires the percentage of students proficient in reading and mathematics. Aside from that number, another academic achievement marker, such as science scores, must be included for middle and elementary schoolers. Also included is the number of students that graduate within four years, growth assessments and other indicators.

However, the state’s simplistic model may be presenting North Carolina’s students in a worse light compared to other states — even though scores show student learning is on par. 

Under North Carolina’s current evaluation, the state has more D and F schools — 42% — and fewer A schools. Compared to Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arizona, all which use A-F grading. North Carolina has the highest mean scale score for eighth grade math and is tied with Florida for the highest mean scale score in grade 8 reading. 

In the report’s data, none of the results place North Carolina last among the six states reviewed. All scores were higher than the national average, with the exception of eighth grade reading. The findings are similar in pre-pandemic data from 2018-2019. 

Compared to the same cohort of states, the highest percentage of D or F schools is 25% in Louisiana — almost half of North Carolina’s percentage.

While Walker is supportive of expanding the scope of accountability, she also hopes the development of a new system is motivated by seeking accuracy, rather than just changing public perception.

“I hope they don’t do it just to make us look better,” Walker said. “If it’s true, let’s do that and that’s right, but at the same time… I firmly believe in our county we have something that we should we need to be working on.” 

She pointed out three of NCDPI’s proposed indicators that could better capture New Hanover County’s successes and areas of need: chronic absenteeism, school climate, and extracurricular activities. 

“I feel like experiences make a lot of difference in kids’ lives because they’ve got something to compare it to,” Walker said, speaking on extracurricular involvement. “It’s one thing to read in a book and it’s another to actually have done it.” 

She pointed to Wrightsville Beach Elementary, an A school, and its kayak deck. Community involvement can make major impacts on school climate, Walker indicated, in turn creating an environment kids want to be in and reducing absences. 

In their accountability models, states may determine the weights for each marker, but student achievement indicators must be weighted higher than school quality or other student success measurements, as noted in the NCDPI report. 

States can also input additional data. Texas allows for locally selected indicators to account for 50% of the model. While it cannot be used for federal submission, the system can give the state a better look at what issues are affecting each district. 

Wisconsin has two separate accountability systems. According to research noted in NCDPI’s report, the state system’s primary purpose is to drive continuous improvement, whereas the federal system’s primary purpose is national compliance. 

Both systems include achievement, growth, and chronic absenteeism. However, the state system includes additional measures, such as on-track and post-secondary readiness measures.

Data gathered in the report shows incorporating more metrics is becoming increasingly popular across the country. As of December 2021, only 11 states used an A–F accountability model to report school performance and to meet federal and state accountability requirements. In March, Utah’s governor signed a law eliminating the state’s A–F accountability model, with Michigan following in May. 

Like North Carolina, Oklahoma is currently reviewing its A–F accountability system.

In contrast, Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature is potentially strengthening its A-F system through proposed legislation that would allow a school board to terminate a district superintendent’s contract if one or more schools receive D or F grades for at least three years to increase academic accountability. 

For Republican members of the NHC school board, they have been vocal about focusing on academics by shifting away from social-emotional learning and examining curriculum. They have advocated for accessible and intensive tutoring, stronger teacher-student relationships, standardizing teaching methods across the district and collaboration between schools, and rejection of the 50-100 grading scale in favor of the traditional system. 

In contrast, many of the Democratic board members, including Walker, have advocated for reducing learning barriers. This includes socioeconomic factors, the home environment and other setbacks, often concentrated in schools deemed low-performing and will still be present, regardless of the state’s accountability system. 

Walker also goes a step further in addressing how schools are evaluated, pointing to New Hanover County Schools’ move to a neighborhood schools districting model in 2010. The decisions put an end to a long-term commitment to integration over proximity in the school system. 

As a result, the last decade has seen the white and wealthy populations in the district move up to the top 10 rankings in the state, while the ones with the poorest and most-disadvantaged children fell to the bottom percentiles. This affects the attrition rates of experienced teachers at high-poverty schools and affects community involvement. 

According to Walker, redistricting back to a more integrated layout “could not politically ever happen.”

“I’m not advocating doing it because I don’t think it would pass,” Walker said. “What we got to do is, if we’re not going to do that, we have to really look at our schools individually and think, ‘What do they need?’” 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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