The Pulse

New Justice Center report details North Carolina’s discriminatory school accountability system

By: - August 4, 2021 2:05 pm

Since the 2013-14 school year, North Carolina has assigned each of its schools an A-F school performance grade. As folks have pointed out, these grades, based almost entirely on standardized test results, overwhelmingly label as “failing” schools that enroll large shares of students from families with low incomes.

A new Justice Center report expands analysis of North Carolina’s school performance grade system by showing how the system also discriminates against schools serving larger populations of students of color. North Carolina’s Native (Indian, per Department of Public Instruction nomenclature below) and Black students are more likely to attend a “failing” school than a “successful” school. Meanwhile, these students’ Asian and white peers overwhelmingly are assigned to “successful” schools.

The report further interrogates state policymakers’ response (or lack thereof) to a system that consistently tells them that students of color and students from families with low incomes are overwhelmingly placed in “failing” schools. Lawmakers have made no efforts to target resources or implement school improvement strategies that would meaningfully benefit students of color or students from families with low incomes, nor have they sought to integrate schools in ways that would equalize students’ access to “good” schools.

At the same time, lawmakers have resisted any reforms to the system that they know stigmatizes schools based on student demographics. In particular, Senate leader Phil Berger has rejected proposals that would modify the formula to make it even slightly less discriminatory.

One must ask why lawmakers are so dedicated to labeling schools as failing while doing nothing to help the students in those schools. As the report asks:

Are lawmakers indifferent to the plight of students of color and students from families with low incomes that our SPG system tells us are chronically assigned to “failing” schools? Or is it possible they are intentionally trying to stigmatize schools that serve these students?

The report presents a series of policy options to overhaul a school accountability system that needlessly stigmatizes schools serving students of color and students from families with low incomes. In addition, the grades are based on a narrow subset of standardized test scores, failing to capture the full impact schools have on student flourishing. Alternative approaches discussed in the report can minimize stigmatization while providing parents and school leaders with more useful information.

The report also calls for race-conscious and class-conscious policies to directly address the very real ways North Carolina’s leaders continue to deny equality of opportunity to students of color and students from families with low incomes.

The report concludes:

It remains unclear whether lawmakers’ adherence to such a flawed SPG scheme is motivated by indifference to students, a desire to stigmatize and dismantle schools, or both. Ultimately, the precise motivation is less important than the tangible impact: North Carolina’s SPG system needlessly stigmatizes schools enrolling students of color and those from families with low incomes. The system is not being used to inform policy, nor does it provide useful information for parents or school leaders. It causes harm and must be abandoned.

The full report can be found here.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.