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State Superintendent Catherine Truitt rolls out new A-F letter grade model

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State Superintendent Catherine Truitt rolls out new A-F letter grade model

Feb 27, 2024 | 6:21 am ET
By Greg Childress
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State Superintendent Catherine Truitt rolls out new A-F letter grade model
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State Superintendent Catherine Truitt testifies before the House Select Committee on Education Reform (Photo: ncleg.gov stream)

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt on Monday rolled out a new A-F school grading system to replace the current one that’s based almost entirely on students’ standardized test scores.

The new system would add “readiness” and “opportunity performance” measures to academic (proficiency in math, reading and science) and progress (how much students grow academically from one year to the next) measures that are already in use.

State education officials shared the new model with members of the House Select Committee on Education Reform. They said the new model will provide greater visibility into how schools are serving kids beyond academics. Greater visibility will allow for greater accountability, officials said.

“This proposal creates a more robust state accountability model that is the best way for holding schools accountable for providing a high quality education,” Truitt said.

The superintendent said state education officials will ask lawmakers for legislation to establish a three-year pilot program to test the new grading system. The program would begin in the fall with schools that volunteer for the program. All schools would use both accountability models the second year before moving completely to the new model the third year.

Under the new model, schools would receive separate letter grade for each of the four performance standards. Currently, schools receive a single letter grade. Eighty percent of the grade is based on test scores and 20% on student academic growth.

Truitt said North Carolina’s school performance model is driven by federal testing requirements that don’t give citizens a clear picture of what’s taking place in state schools.

“An incomplete picture of how schools are preparing students for life beyond the classroom is being shown and we have to do better,” Truitt said.

Accountability data for the 2021-22 school year show that 46% of the state’s elementary schools were rated D or F. Meanwhile, 52% of middle schools and 23% of high schools were D or F schools.

The proposal defines readiness as how well students are prepared for life after high school graduation. It would measure, for example, the percentage of high school students who have confirmed acceptance to college, enlistment in the military or employment. The percentage of students who complete graduation requirements within four or five years would also be an indicator to determine high school letter grades.

Meanwhile, opportunity would take into account chronic absenteeism, school climate and students’ participation in intra/extracurricular activities.

State statistics for chronic absenteeism — when a student misses more than 10% of days in a school year for any reason — are disturbing, said Andrew Smith, assistant superintendent for the Office of Innovation at the state Department of Public Instruction.

During the 2021-22 school year, which was during the COVID-19 pandemic) 31% of the state’s public school children were chronically absent, Smith said.

“That’s half a million children who were not in school,” Smith said. “We believe for all the rest of the indicators to work, kids have to be at school.”

Truitt said she has not asked lawmakers for money to support low-performing schools because the accountability model must be improved to determine how much is needed.

The A-F model has been controversial. Critics have argued since the system became law as part of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s 2013 “Excellent Schools Act,” that it paints an inaccurate and unfair picture of the teaching and learning occurring in North Carolina’s schools. The letter grades are also influential as they are often used by parents to make big decisions such as where to buy homes and where to enroll children in school.

NCDPI contends the current accountability model produces “substantially more D and F schools” than states that use similar models even though the North Carolina’s students score just as well or better on national assessments such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

An advisory group compared North Carolina’s NAEP scores to those in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. North Carolina’s 2019 NAEP scores ranked above the national average in all tested subjects and grades. The state’s 2022 NAEP scores were higher than the national average in all tested grades and subjects except for Grade 8 reading.

Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, said he hopes the move to revamp the accountability model is not an attempt to make “educators and parents feel better rather than having student outcomes actually be better.”

Truitt responded:  “I would say what this does more than anything is that it exposes the fault lines in school in a way the current model doesn’t an I allows the legislature and the department know how to goi in and support people in the building whose salaries make up 83% of school funding and say here’s what you need to do to be better.”