What difference does a year worth of school make in a child's life?
June 4, 2012

That critical question should provide the foundation for any North Carolina public school accountability model. The new accountability model proposed by the General Assembly in Senate Bill 795 would assign a letter grade to schools, but it would not address that most critical accountability question: did the school and its teachers make sure that students grew academically this year? Instead, the letter grade plan would give schools grades based on their students' test passing rates.

If your school had 93 percent of its students at grade level or better, then your school gets an A, for example. But some schools have an easier time earning the A than others.

If your school's students are from such privileged backgrounds that many of them start the school year already well above grade level standards, it probably won't take heroic efforts to get them to passing level.

But at another school where most of its students come from high poverty backgrounds and may enter school below grade level, it could take more than a typical year's worth of academic growth for these students to pass their tests. In that case, despite incredible academic growth of students in this school, it will likely receive a grade of "D" or "F" under the proposed new plan.

Which school is better? The school where students have ordinary academic growth but started the year so far ahead of the game that passing is not much of a challenge to them or their teachers? Or the school where students gained more than a year's worth of ground, but still not enough to overcome the fact that they started the year behind everyone else?

North Carolina's school accountability model has long relied on having both measures – academic growth from one year to the next and the passing rates of students each year. By factoring growth into the equation, we can recognize that students begin school with many different levels of preparation. By factoring in the percentage of students who are proficient, we recognize that growth is not enough; students need to hit the grade level targets too. This balanced approach gives parents key information about performance and growth and helps inform families about the health of schools.

For example, when growth is important in our model, there is incentive to focus on all students, including those who are gifted and ahead of their peers. When only bottom-line performance is the focus, the incentive is to get the low performers over the bar and not to worry so much about growth for those who are already high achieving.

Many standardized tests tell us a great deal about how much support and opportunity that students have at home. You can call it the zip code effect – the more affluent the families are in a certain zip code the more likely it is that children will have high test scores. Their families have the means and the desire to do many things that are not available to children from poor families. North Carolina's school accountability model should hold schools accountable for scores and academic growth. Both are important and including both measures ensures that we recognize teachers who teach in schools where students begin school with many strikes against them.

When the State Board of Education established the ABCs accountability model in the 1990s, the issue of growth versus performance was debated extensively. Ultimately, the State Board of Education decided to use both. It is wise to continue to do so, even as we move to different ways to measure district, school and student accountability.

I acknowledge, however, that our current accountability model features school designations that are difficult for parents and others to understand. Senate Bill 795 recognizes that this system needs to be revamped. I agree with the goal to make this system more easily understood and transparent. The State Board of Education has approved a new accountability model that also will help us to accomplish this goal and align with a new reporting system we can implement now that North Carolina has received a waiver from some of the key provisions in No Child Left Behind.




June St. Clair Atkinson
State Superintendent