As the state of North Carolina gears up to issue letter grades to schools based on student test scores, the advocacy group CarolinaCAN is rolling out its own version today. The group's report cards label each public school (including charters) and school district on an A-F scale, based on 2012 performance on state exams.
Spoiler alert: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rated Cs and Ds as a district, while its individual schools rate among the best and the worst. Ditto for charters in this area.
CarolinaCAN is an offshoot of the Connecticut-based 50CAN, created to promote choice, accountability and flexibility. Kowal said the N.C. grades promote transparency while giving parents access to important data in an easy-to-grasp format. "We designed these for the general public in North Carolina," she said, acknowledging that the grades and the data points don't give the full picture of school quality, let alone a district's performance.
She said the grades highlight overall performance, achievement gaps and performance of low-income, African American and Hispanic students, who tend to lag behind peers. There are Top 10 lists recognizing schools with the biggest gains and the best performance in those groups. Morehead STEM Academy, Piedmont Middle and Irwin Academic Center, CMS magnets with admission requirements, and Sugar Creek Charter, a Charlotte school serving a high-poverty population, stand out on those lists.
Time for all the caution flags. First, the numbers are stale. It wasn't a typo to say the grades are based on 2012 exams. The 2013 results that would give us a snapshot of the most recent school year won't be released until November, as state officials figure out how to deal with new exams. The state's school report cards, which give a more comprehensive set of school data, won't be updated until January. For consistency, CarolinaCAN used 2012 graduation rates, though you can get 2013 rates online.
Second, the grades and lists don't just compare apples and oranges, they pretty much throw in the whole produce section. There are neighborhood schools, magnets, charters and alternative schools; rural districts, urban districts and everything in between. Schools that serve the most disadvantaged kids are graded on the same curve as those where most kids have college-educated parents who send them in prepared and motivated to learn.
Third, the report cards are a work in progress. When I first looked at the lists last week I was befuddled. CMS' Metro School, which serves severely disabled students ages 3-23, was listed as one of the best elementary schools based on performance gains. There were numerous errors linked to the school closings and other changes CMS made in 2011-12. Kowal rechecked after I raised those questions and found ways to fix most of the problems. She's asking anyone who uses the ratings to email her (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions and issues.
To trot out one of my favorite sayings, crunching school data doesn't provide answers, but it helps you ask better questions. One of the biggest questions may be: Can the state create a grading system that benefits students, educators, voters and taxpayers?