Editorial: Look beyond school grades

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The release of school accountability reports on Sept. 1 showed overall improvement for the state’s public schools. Rowan-Salisbury Schools also saw growth — just enough for school personnel to celebrate and for school skeptics to criticize.

School data can be difficult to interpret. There are several scores and measures and designations. But legislators’ attempt to simplify accountability by giving each school a letter grade still does schools and the public a disservice.

For instance, if a school’s performance score rose from 47 one year to 58 the next and then 65 in the third year, would you say the school is showing improvement? Probably so. Yet all three scores amount to a C rating. So a person who looks only at the student performance grades assigned to Millbridge Elementary School, which made the scores mentioned above, would see a row of C grades for the past three years, suggesting stagnation when, in fact, the school has shown steady progress.

The good news from the state report: North Carolina has 92 fewer schools tagged as “low-performing” — those that show a pattern of scoring D’s or F’s and do not exceed expectations for growth.

The bad news: Fourteen Rowan-Salisbury schools are on the list of recurring low-performing schools: Overton, China Grove, Koontz, Isenberg, Hurley, Knollwood, Landis and North Rowan elementaries; Erwin, Corriher Lipe, Southeast and West Rowan middle schools; and North Rowan and Salisbury high schools.

Rowan-Salisbury escaped designation as a low-performing district. Systems still on that list are Northampton County, Washington County, Martin County, Thomasville City, Kannapolis City, Warren County, Anson County, Nash-Rocky Mount, Wilson County and Robeson County — generally high-poverty districts.

School performance grades nearly always reflect an area’s relative wealth or lack thereof. A statewide analysis by The News & Observer of Raleigh found most of the schools that received an F were high-poverty schools where 80 percent or more of the students were economically disadvantaged. Meanwhile, no school where fewer than 40 percent of the students were economically disadvantaged received an F.

If you’re trying to decide where to send your child to school, look beyond school performance letter grades and scores. Visit schools and look for an emphasis on literacy. Talk to principals. Attend a PTA meetings and meet other parents. While scores can provide useful data, education involves a lot more than standardized tests.