A conversation with myself about school report cards

I’ve spent the past week talking to myself about North Carolina’s new school report cards. Here’s what I said:

What happened to the NC report cards?

North Carolina is the fourteenth state to adopt an A-F grading scale for its public schools. The grades were added to the report cards to make it easier for parents to evaluate the overall quality of a school. They’re calculated using an 80 percent achievement, 20 percent growth formula based on standardized test scores.

You’re a teacher. Why are you so upset?

The grade focuses too much on achievement and too little on growth. The state of Florida was the first to adopt the letter grades in 1999. It formulates grades using a 50 percent achievement and 50 percent growth formula. Measuring growth measures students’ skills at the beginning and end of a school year and paints a more complete picture of what’s happening in a classroom.

There is also no attendance consideration. At my school, a student can come to class once every two weeks and still take the exam. If that student fails, it reflects poorly on me and my school. Even the best teachers can’t help students that don’t come to class.

It sounds like you don’t want to be held accountable for your students’ test scores.

It’s part of my job to prepare every single one of them to pass their test, but the scores don’t accurately illustrate my performance because they measure only a small part of the curriculum.

But aren’t the tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards?

My ninth grade English students spent two and a half hours reading several passages and answering fifty multiple choice questions on their state test. The Common Core includes standards for reading, writing, speaking, listening and language, yet there was no writing, listening or speaking portion on the test. The standards also call for students to perform tasks like “use big ideas to support text,” “Compare information across sources,” “gather and report information in writing,” and “communicate effectively.” A 50-question multiple choice test cannot effectively measure my students’ ability to perform these tasks.

So you ignore performance data?

Performance data is essential, but if I’m using it to drive my instruction it has to be valid. I instead turn to nationally recognized software like the Scholastic Reading Inventory, local assessments created by teams of teachers and my own assignments.

You’re also a parent. How do the report cards affect your family?

I want clear information about the quality of my local schools so I can decide where to send my own two children. More charter schools open every year, giving parents more school choice and increasing the need for clear and accurate information about how a school impacts its students.

Parents need to know how students perform and grow, relative to their attendance, based on assessments that measure the entire curriculum. The current report cards provide some but not all of the information we need.

You live in Durham, too. Why do the new report cards matter to the entire community?

Twenty-nine of the 54 schools in Durham Public Schools received D’s and F’s. Sixty four percent of DPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. It’s no coincidence that schools serving large numbers of students that live below the poverty line received low grades.

Decades of research has proven that achievement levels correlate with socioeconomic status, but growth rates do not. Students can make several years of progress in one school year, but if they haven’t caught up to their grade level by the time they take the test, their progress has little influence on the school’s performance data.

Durham’s poverty rate creates a natural achievement gap in its public schools. The more value we place on growth, the more likely we are close the achievement gap, position students for long-term success and break the cycle of poverty that many families have fought for generations.

So what’s the answer?

The report cards would be more effective if they strike a better balance between performance and growth, measure the entire curriculum on its standardized tests and factor socioeconomic status and student attendance records into the formula that determines the letter grade.

This fall, North Carolina will drop the Common Core and adopt its own set of state standards. Lawmakers have an opportunity to adjust the current curriculum and testing models to better measure the impact a school has on its students in its report cards. I hope they do their homework.

Originally published in the Durham Herald Sun on 2/21/15.