State Schools Superintendent Catherine Truitt Introduces Plan to Overhaul School Grading System

    by Katherine Zehnder for the Carolina Journal

    On Monday, Catherine Truitt, superintendent of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI), introduced her plan to overhaul the A-F accountability system for North Carolina public schools. 

    The current system grades North Carolina schools on an A-F scale with End-of-Grade test scores making up 80% of the school’s letter grade, and the other 20% comes from how the scores have improved compared to prior years. Truitt says the scoring should be more robust and give families a deeper level of information, offering a plan with four letter grades instead of one.

    “They don’t know what a D actually says about their child’s school, or what an A says about their child’s school,” said Truitt in her opening statement on Monday. “So, we have an opportunity here to right this ship, to change how we define what a high-performing school is and what student success looks like. And that’s what we are excited to share with you all today.”

    Truitt is requesting that lawmakers introduce legislation for a three-year pilot program starting this fall where volunteer district would run both the old model of accountability and her new one, comparing the results. Only the new model would be utilized in school districts in the third year. 

    She and her team have identified three primary problems with the current system: She says there is no meaningful accountability for schools at either the state or federal level, no support for low-performing schools, and parents don’t know what the grades mean.

    North Carolina is one of 11 states that use an A-F system to report and measure school performance and how they meet state and federal accountability requirements. Out of six states that use a similar accountability model, North Carolina has far more low-performing schools than the other five states.  This system is similar to the system used to measure how restaurants stack up against the health codes. 

    North Carolina is not the only state overhauling its grading system, according to Truitt’s report to the General Assembly. Oklahoma is currently reviewing their A-F accountability system as well. 

    The New Accountability System

    The new grading system would be built upon four pillars: academics, progress, readiness, and opportunity. The indicators for how these pillars are measured vary a bit for each grade span. However, elementary, middle, and high school are all built upon the four pillars.

    Pillar 1: Academics

    The “academics” pillar would measure proficiency in math, reading, and science; progress measures growth; readiness measures post-secondary preparation; and opportunity measures chronic absenteeism, school climate, and intra/extracurricular activities. 

    “I think we’ve heard loud and clear that we want to be more transparent with this model, and we want to ensure that everyone is aware of the proficiency of a school,” Dr. Andrew Smith, assistant state superintendent of the NC DPI, told lawmakers. “The current model blends both growth and proficiency together. So you can mask proficiency or growth with that letter grade, and this model and the academic indicator you will know specifically the proficiency of a school. So, as a parent, I know exactly how students are doing in that school.” 

    Pillar 2: Progress

    For “progess” measurements DPI would use the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) to measure growth in student achievement.

    “This is no surprise to any educators in the room,” said Smith. “This is the EVAAS metric that looks at the growth of students in a school. And so here you’re able to see, are we growing children?… So we can see specifically in the growth category how well teachers are moving students along.” 

    Pillar 3: Readiness

    The “readiness” pillar would measure a student’s “readiness” to emerge into the real world and transition into college, trade school, workforce, etc. 

    “There are different kinds of expectations around the indicator,” said Smith.”So elementary school, we’re looking at the percentage of students who participate in career exploration activities. What we know is that a lot of the burden of career exploration sits at the high school level. We expect high school teachers to prepare kids for their post-secondary path.” 

    He went on to explain how, in reality, the burden needs to be distributed across all levels of education, and the brunt of the burden should not rest at the high school level.

    “We want to start exposing children to career opportunities in kindergarten,” said Smith. “We know that the best schools in North Carolina and highest quality schools in North Carolina are already doing this. They’re preparing kids in elementary school to think about what their future holds. They’re exploring those opportunities.” 

    The highest level of expectation for readiness rests at the high school level. In high school, schools might offer AP or honors to prepare for college, career technical classes to prepare for community college, or JROTC for military service. DPI says this metric gives a measure of student readiness.

    “No matter which path you’re on, we are supporting those children,” said Smith. “So in this indicator, we have an opportunity for schools to show how well they are preparing students for their post-secondary path.”

    Pillar 4: Opportunity

    School climate, intra/extracurricular activities, and chronic student absenteeism would measure the opportunity, culture and climate in the school. 

    “It starts, we believe, with intra and extracurricular activities. So this is the percentage of students who participate in at least one intra or extracurricular activity,” said Smith. “This is important because these are the elements outside of content, outside of academics, that engage children. We want to be able to incentivize schools to say every child should have one of these opportunities.”

    Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 10% of the school year, equating to 18 days or almost an entire month of school. Smith told lawmakers that the state’s statistics on chronic absenteeism are not good.

    “In 2021-22 up to 31% of North Carolina public school children were chronically absent,” he said. “Thirty-one percent equates to half a million children across North Carolina not in school. We believe that for all the rest of the indicators to work, kids have to be at school.”

    School climate measures the culture and environment that students learn in, and teachers teach in. 

    “We know that all children deserve a good school culture and climate,” said Dr. Smith. The NC DPI measures school climate via the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey. The survey  allows the NC DPI to measure not only what school climate is really like, but also the percentage of teachers who affirm the qualities of a great school environment.

    “So we believe that these indicators hold us more accountable, not less, and provide additional visibility into high-quality schools in North Carolina and what those look like,” said Dr. Smith. “We believe that once you look at metrics like this, it changes the conversations in schools.”

    The North Carolina General Assembly is scheduled to convene March 13, 2024.

    Above photo: North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt commends Millbrook students and staff for the school’s remarkable achievement. Courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation.