Is the state using unbalanced scales to measure school efficacy?

By: Chrysta Carroll - Bladen Journal

Anyone who’s ever gotten a C on a paper but thought they deserved an A or B understands the way many schools and districts in North Carolina feel.

In 2013, the state began using an A-F report card to measure school and district performance. Based on a 15-point scale — where 85-100=A, 70-84=B, and so forth — the idea behind the new measure was to have an easy-to-understand, familiar way for parents and educators to assess a school’s or district’s efficacy.

The problem, according to critics, is that whereas a student’s report card is based on multiple assessments and assignments, the school performance report is based on the outcome of a single test taken by students at one point in time.

Now in place for four years, the state is upping the ante for next year’s reports. Beginning in the 2017/2018 school year, the state will transition from a 15-point scale to a 10-point differential.

“What that means is where currently, a school with a score of 55 might be a C school, that won’t be the case any more,” Bladen County Schools Superintendent Robert Taylor told the board at September’s monthly meeting. Under the new system, where 90-100=A, 80-89= B, etc., such a school would go from a C to an F.

Much of the criticism for the state’s assessment comes from districts like Bladen County, where performance lags behind progress. Federal law mandates all public school students in grades 3-8 be tested annually in math and language arts and, in fifth and eighth grades, in science as well. High school graduates are required to have been tested in one math, one English, and one science test. These scores are used to give each school an achievement score — based solely on how it performs with regard to grade-level standards — and a growth score, which compares how the school performed from one year to the next. The two scores — achievement and growth — are then weighted to derive an overall performance score.

This is where the rub comes in for low-performing districts. Achievement — how students compare to others — counts as 80 percent of the overall performance score, and growth accounts for only 20 percent. Under the system, a student who began four years behind grade level in math but closes the gap to two years — essentially growing two years in the span of one — is heavily counted against the school, since he is still below grade level.

“This is where we have trouble with how the state comes up with statuses,” Taylor told the board earlier this month, citing a “low-performing” status for Elizabethtown Middle School despite its “tremendous growth.”

Critics argue teaching that accomplishes such a feat should be rewarded, not penalized, and schools should be measured by how well they teach, not the ability level of the students that come to them. Such a mindset is behind a push to change the accountability standards to equally weigh achievement and growth.

Regardless of whether the two scores are weighted differently in the future, next year’s change to the 10-point scale has staggering implications for low-performing schools and districts, especially considering the state’s plans for educational leadership. Earlier this year, the state announced plans to begin tying principal pay to school performance.

For years, North Carolina principals were paid based on years of experience, how many teachers were at their school, and whether they held advanced degrees. Beginning this year, however, principals will be paid based solely on the number of students in the school, with bonuses tied to school performance. Though the bill contains a “no-harm” clause saying no principal will lose pay, the clause expires in June of 2018.

In 2016,the average base salary for a North Carolina principal was $64,209, a figure that put the state near the bottom on national rankings. Though this year’s budget — a response to a joint legislative study committee calling for higher salaries — raised the bottom of the pay scale from $52,656 to $61,751, the state also lowered the top of the scale from $111,984 to $88,921.

Critics of the plan also cite existing difficulty attracting educational leaders to low-performing schools and say linking principal pay to school performance will only result in quality leaders flocking to wealthier, higher-performing schools and districts. Such a move, they say, would only serve to cause low-performing schools to plummet even lower.

Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing

Chrysta Carroll

Bladen Journal