High poverty schools receive vast majority of state’s D and F grades

By: - February 5, 2015 2:30 pm

Of the nearly 30 percent of North Carolina’s schools receiving letter grades of D or F from the state, almost all of them are designated as high poverty schools with at least 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch.


“The only thing these grades tell us is where our poor children go to school and where our rich children go to school,” said Lynn Shoemaker, a 23 year veteran public school teacher representing the advocacy group Public Schools First NC at a press conference held by Senate Democrats.

The North Carolina General Assembly joined more than a dozen other states in adopting A-F school letter grades — a system of accountability that former governor of Florida Jeb Bush conceived more than 15 years ago. Eighty percent of North Carolina’s school grades reflect student achievement on standardized tests on one given day, and 20 percent reflect students’ progress on those tests over time.

Proponents of the grading system say it provides the public with a better understanding of how well schools are educating students. But critics say the measure is too simple–it fails to sufficiently account for the academic growth that good schools help students achieve and does not take into consideration the challenges that schools serving a high number of poor students face.

“Is this data for shaming purposes?” said Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenberg) in an interview with N.C. Policy Watch.

Rep. Cotham, who has worked at a low-wealth school, said it’s very damaging to receive yet another strike that these letter grades bring when low-wealth schools already battle against so many obstacles.

Here’s the breakdown of how all public schools were graded for the 2013-14 school year:


North Carolina schools chief Dr. June Atkinson told reporters that the grades should represent only a starting point for evaluating the quality of schools, and that parents should dig deeper, looking at academic growth and how their individual children are performing.

Reflecting on the achievement gap that the A-F letter grades portray, Senate democrats said the root of the problem is with the fact that the General Assembly has steadily decreased its investment in public education for the neediest districts over a number of years.

“I think we all recognize that there are schools in this state that are not performing effectively,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham). “What [the grades] demand us to do as a legislature is to create…special funding that can be targeted specifically for these schools that are deeply troubled, many of which are dealing with low-wealth populations…and incentivize strong teachers to go in there and work in those schools,” said Sen. McKissick.

Rep. Cotham wondered if GOP lawmakers would take a different approach, using the grades as a justification to increase funding for school vouchers that students could use at private schools.

North Carolina Association of Educators executive director Mark Jewell worried that no one will want to send their students to an F school. “It’s a scarlet letter not telling a complete picture,” Jewell said, adding that the grades did highlight something that everyone already knew: poverty matters.

Some local school districts signed resolutions urging the General Assembly to delay the A-F grading model until a better formula can be put in place to grade schools’ performance.

Responding to a chorus calling for a school grading formula that gave greater attention to a school’s track record over time, Senator Josh Stein (D-Wake) filed a bill on Wednesday that would change the A-F school grading formula from 80% performance/20% growth to 40% performance/60% growth.

On his Facebook page, Stein called the current grading system broken and that it will serve to weaken North Carolina’s public schools.

“Under current law, a school can dramatically improve student learning, even imparting two grades worth of knowledge in a single year. But if the students started the year three years behind, the law considers that school a failure because the students didn’t test at grade level,” Stein said.

“That’s ridiculous. We should praise a school that is able to move students forward, especially those who start out behind grade level,” Stein said.

Visit to check your school’s grade as well as other performance indicators for the 2013-14 school year.

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Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works as a Senior Writer and Researcher at the NC Public School Forum. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution and an Education Specialist at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. [email protected]