Schools: We’ll grade ourselves

District tweaks state performance grades

By Adam Orr -

WEST JEFFERSON-Ashe County Schools doesn’t agree with the way the state graded the performance of its students and teachers last year.

The state’s school performance grading scale – the same one that assigns letter grades to individual schools – puts too much weight on arbitrary proficiency targets and not enough on how much schools have improved from year to year, according to Superintendent of Ashe County Schools Todd Holden.

So the district decided this week to re-score its schools by tweaking the state’s grading formula. Here’s what you need to know.

Three C’s and two B’s

Those are the scores local schools earned in the state’s latest round of performance grading, which were released last month. Ashe County High School, Ashe County Middle School and Blue Ridge Elementary earned C’s – according to the state – while Mountain View Elementary and Westwood Elementary earned B grades.

80 percent achievement and 20 percent academic growth

That’s how the state currently assigns its letter grades to schools. Beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, the North Carolina General Assembly mandated all schools be assigned A-F letter grades based on student achievement and growth. But the majority of the grading component is based on student achievement scores, with just a fifth of the grade coming from how much improvement students show over the year.

72 percent

The percentage of the state’s public schools that earned a C-grade or better. The vast majority of those schools – slightly more than 40 percent – earned a C.

Focused on the wrong measure?

That’s the criticism Ashe County School Board Member Lee Beckworth had regarding the state’s grading formula. “The school systems have been arguing that if you take a kid and help him learn more – that’s better than taking an already smart kid and not helping him show any improvement,” Beckworth said. “We’ve tried to get the state to weight (performance versus growth) 50/50. Well they won’t do it, but I think we should.”

A moving target

Doesn’t this mean the district should place more emphasis on hitting those state mandated performance goals? Holden said yes, but it’s not quite that simple. Each time the state makes changes to curriculum or how it tests students – school districts statewide see a drop in performance. North Carolina has adjusted both its curriculum and tests in recent years, which Holden said leaves districts looking like they’re under-performing for 3-5 years versus the older grading scale.

If you don’t have kids in school, why should you care?

Because a school district’s reputation also impacts things like economic development and real estate values, Holden said. “If a business or a family is considering relocating to an area, yeah, they’re going to look at school performance,” Holden said. “So it’s not just about putting your best foot forward, it’s about making sure the scores people see accurately reflect what’s going on inside our schools.”

And Ashe stacks up well using comprehensive measures

The 2015 NICHE Rankings of the Best Public School Districts ranked Ashe County Schools 10th in the state as an A- district. That system takes into account everything from test scores to parent reviews.

Ashe County’s fix?

Holden asked the five member Ashe County Board of Education Monday night to tweak the state’s A-F grades to “more accurately” the way each school performed last year by putting more emphasis on the schools that met or exceeded “expected growth.” Calculated with end of course and end of grade test data, expected growth is essentially a measure of how much a school or district’s students should improve in certain areas year to year, Holden said. The board approved adding a full letter grade to schools that exceeded growth and a “+” to schools that met growth.

All but one school met or exceeded growth

Ashe County High School was the only district school that didn’t meet or exceed the state’s expected growth figure last year, Holden said. By adjusting the rankings to more heavily factor in growth, Holden said Blue Ridge Elementary School would score a B, while Mountain View would be an A. Westwood Elementary would be a B+, Ashe County Middle school would be a C+ and the high school a C.

Reach Adam Orr at 336-846-7164 or
District tweaks state performance grades

By Adam Orr

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