Let’s settle an old debate

 In 2015-05
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again,” we are told in the first chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes. “There is nothing new under the sun.” I was thinking of this familiar verse — or perhaps just praying for divine deliverance — as I recently made my way through a high, teetering stack of old bill drafts, research reports and news clippings from the 1989 session of the North Carolina General Assembly.

What I sought was the legislative history of Senate Bill 2, which created the state’s first comprehensive set of standardized tests and school report cards. You might have heard lately about proposals in Raleigh to change the way North Carolina’s public schools are assessed. Back in February, the state for the first time applied letter grades to schools based on student performance. Even though the grading scale was quite generous — based on 15-point increments, rather than the usual 10-point scale — only 5% of schools got As, with 24% earning Bs, 41% earning Cs  and 30% scoring Ds or Fs.

Not surprisingly, the release of the letter grades provoked significant controversy. Some tried to use them to score political points. For many school administrators and educators, the low grades simply demonstrated that the assessment system was unfair. Disadvantaged students typically fare worse on standardized tests, they pointed out, so schools with high concentrations of poor pupils can be expected to get low grades, and those with more affluent student bodies can be expected to get high grades, regardless of whether a school is adding any real value.

That’s pretty much what happened. Some high-poverty schools earned high grades — for which they merit both praise and emulation — but most didn’t. If you really want to know whether teachers and schools are succeeding, you have to look at the change in student test scores over the course of a year, not just the scores themselves. North Carolina’s assessment already does that, actually. But the raw scores make up 80% of a school’s letter grade while the change accounts for only 20%. Some lawmakers favor shifting the weights in the formula to 50% score and 50% change in score. Others want to introduce new variables, such as one focused on at-risk students, or issue two different letter grades — one showing how well the average student performs and the other showing how much the average student improves over a school year. There are also powerful legislators who favor leaving the system the way it is for now. They say it would be better to have several years of comparable measurements with which to evaluate our public schools and education policies, even if the yardstick isn’t marked off the way we might prefer.

A (mostly) different set of North Carolina policymakers had precisely the same debate back in 1989. Then, four years into implementing the Basic Education Program — a massive and highly prescriptive set of minimum standards and funding streams — politicians of both parties decided to inject more local flexibility and accountability into school reform. Legislative leaders, the administration of then-Gov. Jim Martin and groups outside of government such as the Public School Forum of North Carolina helped fashion what evolved into Senate Bill 2. It offered districts more autonomy on operations, textbooks and teacher compensation in exchange for the institution of end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, the outcomes of which would then be published every year as school report cards.

As state education officials set out to implement the legislation in early 1990, they argued that average scores should be reported alongside the socioeconomic breakdown of students in each school. Local superintendents weren’t satisfied, particularly if they presided over districts with high concentrations of poor or minority students. They wanted the scores adjusted for socioeconomic status. “You’re not going to recognize the difference between Chapel Hill and Granville County?” asked Tom Houlihan, then serving as Granville’s superintendent. “Come on, give me a break.”

Unfortunately, what North Carolinians ultimately received after several years of tweaking was a confusing mishmash. We got to see the actual scores — for schools, districts and the state as a whole. But we also got a set of euphemistic labels such as “schools of excellence,” “schools of distinction” and “no-recognition schools.” They were meant to convey information about scores, gains in scores and student demographics. In practice, they meant little to anyone outside the school system. As Ecclesiastes 6:11  reminds us, “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?”

Today’s letter grades really are an improvement. We should have been using them all along. But there is a strong case for adjusting the methodology. Perhaps issuing two letter grades would be the best approach. If I saw a school with a D in achievement but a B in annual growth, I’d be inclined to credit its principal and teachers for making good progress that year. On the other hand, if I saw a school with a B in achievement but a D in annual growth, I’d be likely to think it wasn’t really helping its students rise to their full potential.

When it comes to debates about testing and accountability, there may well be nothing new under the sun. So let’s finally reach a consensus and move on to the next task.

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