In an update to the Charter Schools Advisory Board on Thursday, the federal policy director at the state’s Department of Public Instruction said that North Carolina’s new A-F school grading system does not align with federal regulations under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) —which means that the either the General Assembly will need to amend the law soon or the state will need to have two school accountability systems in order to comply with federal law and regulations.

DPI’s Dr. Lou Fabrizio told the CSAB “that’s a heavy lift” for state lawmakers to come into their 2017 legislative session in mid-January and amend the A-F school grading law in time for the state to submit their ESSA compliance plan to the federal government by March, a short timeline that played a role in the State Board of Education’s recent decision to submit their ESSA compliance plan in September, instead.

It’s a complicated issue, but essentially there are two federal requirements under ESSA that are missing from the state’s A-F school grading system:

  1. a measure of progress in terms of how schools are helping English language learners achieve proficiency in English; and
  2. a measure of school quality and student success (examples include student and educator engagement, access and completion of advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness, school climate and safety).

Fabrizio said that because the current A-F school grading formula doesn’t include these indicators, either lawmakers will have to amend the A-F school grades law to have them included and given certain weights or the State Board of Education will need to act to develop an additional school accountability system that will report on these measures to comply with federal law and continue receiving federal funds that are authorized under ESSA (other federal funding streams, like those associated with students with special needs or career and technical education, are authorized under different federal statutes and are not affected).

Fabrizio also said that information reported through the accountability model must be able to be disaggregated across various student groups, including race/ethnicity, students with disabilities, English language learners and students who are economically disadvantaged. There are also a few other elements of the A-F school grading model that also don’t align with federal standards, such as the indicator of math course rigor.

None of these federal requirements would require the General Assembly to change how much student academic growth accounts for school grades (currently 20 percent of the formula); but it does require additional indicators to go into the calculation of the overall 20 percent of student growth and 80 percent of student proficiency indicators (like I said: it’s complicated).

The A-F school grading system was put into place by the General Assembly beginning with the 2013-14 school year in the interest of providing families with more transparency when it comes to how local public schools are performing.

But critics of the letter grades, which were developed based on former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s A-F school grading system, contend that North Carolina’s version simply serves as a proxy for socioeconomic status. [Read more about A-F school grades HERE and HERE and HERE.]

That’s because the grades rely more heavily on students’ performance on standardized tests at one point in time. Only 20 percent of the formula for devising letter grades takes into account how schools help students grow over time in terms of their academic performance—and as a result, some say that the grades are not always a good indicator of a school’s quality and could even present misinformation.

More to come on how North Carolina moves to comply with federal law when it comes to A-F school grades; see my story from last week about how one state organization has developed a new app that relies heavily on the accountability system to direct families to charter schools and private voucher schools.

This post has been updated.

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