Six Bs, nine Cs, and five Ds. No As, and no Fs.

Moore County's public schools, along with all of the public schools in the state, were given letter grades on Thursday, February 5. It's something new for North Carolina, mandated by the General Assembly.

Union Pines High School received a B; Pinecrest and North Moore both had Cs.

Among the middle schools, only West Pine received a B. New Century and Elise both received Cs, and Southern Pines and Crain's Creek Middle received Ds.

Among the elementary schools, there were four Bs: West Pine, Pinehurst, Sandhills Farm Life, and Southern Pines.

West End Elementary, Vass-Lakeview, Highfalls, Carthage, and Cameron received Cs. Westmoore, Aberdeen, and Robbins received Ds.

Two Moore County charter schools also received letter grades. The Academy of Moore received a B; STARS scored a D.

Parents of students at D-graded schools will be getting a letter noting the low score.


Do the grades mean anything?

Those are the results, but the questions parents, teachers, and students might be asking is: "Do they mean anything?"

Bruce Cunningham isn't convinced.

"My reaction to the newly released A-F grading system is that it is an oversimplified and unrealistic way of gauging the success of a particular school," Cunningham, who chairs the Moore County Board of Education, told The Times.

By way of example, he noted that US News and World Report placed Pinecrest among the top fifteen high schools in the state. Cunningham said he knows one Pinecrest senior who has been accepted at Harvard and another who has been accepted at Yale.

"I know four Pinecrest students who were national debate champions," Cunningham said, "and you tell me that all these students are going to a C school?"

In fact, Pinecrest missed its B by a single point. Behind the letter grades are the typical 100 point scale that readers will remember from their own schools days. In the fifteen point scale used for the state's new letter grades, the cutoff for a B is 70. Pinecrest scored 69.

So did Highfalls Elementary and New Century Middle School — both one point shy of a B.


A single test on a single day

Even more important in understanding what the grades mean is understanding what they don't measure. The letter grades don't really reflect the degree to which a teacher takes a child who is struggling and helps them became a successful student.

"Not every student starts at the same place, Mike Metcalf told The Times. Dr. Metcalf is Moore County Schools' [MCS] Director for Planning, Accountability and Research — i.e., the testing guru.

"Some students may start so low that they may never pass the proficiency test," he said, "but they may have grown more than we would have expected them to."

Metcalf explained that the letter grades and the scores behind them, at least for elementary and middle schools, are based on a single test.

"You are boiling it down to a single test on a single day," he said.

For elementary and middle schools, eighty percent of the score behind the letter grade is based on how students score on end of grade proficiency tests in reading, math, and science. Only twenty percent is based on comparing students' actual progress in the grade against their expected progress in the grade.

Metcalf noted that there are conversations among legislators in Raleigh about changing the weighting from 80-20 to 60-40, so that student growth is given more weight in the letter grade.

Senator Jerry Tillman, who represents Moore County in the NC Senate and chairs two powerful education committees in the General Assembly, agreed with Metcalf on that point.

"It measures proficiency, but it doesn't measure achievement," Tillman said of the new letter grade system. "In other words you might have school with real poor demographics where students are coming from behind. They might have a 'D' on proficiency, but they might be achieving real progress. Right now we're mostly measuring proficiency."

"In the future, we might want to give two grades: one for proficiency and one for achievement," Tillman said. "Or we might want to increase the percentage of the achievement score."

"I want to see how the scores turn out over the next year or two" before making changes to the system, he added.


Measuring school performance — or poverty?

Data released by the state Department of Public Instruction shows a close correlation between poverty and low proficiency scores — and that correlation seems to hold up in Moore County schools.

A commonly used measure of the relative wealth of student populations is to look at the percentage of students on free and reduced lunches.

The graph below places that percentage for Moore County elementary schools against the School Performance Grade [SPG] scores of those same schools. The letter grades are based on the SPG scores.

Grades vs. Wealth

Pinehurst Elementary had the highest SPG score, at 83, and the lowest percentage of students on free or reduced lunch, at 18 percent.

Ninety-five percent of Robbins Elementary students are on free or reduced lunch and the school's SPG score of 48 was the lowest in the district.

The correlation isn't exact, but the bar graph is telling. As the green bars indicating the percentage of students with free and reduced lunch rises, the blue bars representing SPG scores fall.

Statewide, "many of the schools that you're seeing with Ds and Fs are schools with high poverty," Metcalf told The Times. "Many of the As are specialty schools — math and science academies."

Metcalf is concerned not only that parents and students may have trouble understanding what the letter grades mean, but also that the grades may discourage teachers.

"I am most concerned about how it will affect our teachers," he said. "You have teachers who have chosen to work with the most difficult populations of students, who may be helping those students achieve more than they ever thought possible, and they get saddled with a D."


The 'Growing to Greatness' Alternative

So, it's possible that our new letter grades have as much to do with poverty as performance. And they aren't designed to give much weight to academic growth.

But they may be missing even more important aspects of what education is all about, Bruce Cunningham told The Times.

Even though letter grades for schools are new in North Carolina, the idea of rating schools based on proficiency scores is not.

In the 1990s, the state developed an accountability model called "the ABCs of Public Education." Schools were scored based on a more complicated set of criteria than used in the current letter grades, in a system that was tweaked nearly every school year. Based on the results, schools were designated as "having made expected progress" or not, and high scoring schools were designated as "schools of excellence" or "schools of distinction."

As Senator Tillman told The Times: "A letter grade is a lot easier to understand than a 'school of excellence' or a school of distinction.' And that's what we had before."

Cunningham and his fellow Moore County School Board members were not big fans of the complicated ABC system.

He told The Times that MCS' "Growing to Greatness" strategic plan was created, in part, in reaction to the ABC focus on test scores.

Growing to Greatness lays out goals and strategies in four "pathways," one of which is "Learning." The others are "Leadership," "Culture," and "Community."

"When we developed Growing to Greatness, we were saying that, to us, it is meaningful to say that part of our mission is to help kids be leaders," Cunningham explained. "We want kids who care about who they are and where they come from — and who know the story of their community."

"We developed Growing to Greatness to support and legitimize teachers who want to do more than teach to the test," he said.

That philosophy is reflected even in the naming and landscaping of schools, Cunningham said.

"When we opened Crain's Creek Middle School, we named it for the first public school in Moore County," he explained. "It was named after the surveyor who originally surveyed that area. At the dedication, [former School Board Member] Lorna Clack gave students a presentation about the Scottish Highlanders coming up the Cape Fear River after the battle of Culloden."

"When we built West Pine Middle School, we planted peach trees, because kids ought to know that that is peach country."

In an earlier interview, Cunningham told The Times that he believes one of the responsibilities of the Moore County Board of Education is to resist the current fashion for boiling down the complex process of teaching and learning into a set of oversimplified numbers.

The Growing to Greatness strategic plan, which the Board updated and reaffirmed last year, is Moore County's answer to that oversimplification.

"I don't want people to think that Growing to Greatness is a gimmick -- just something that sounds good," Cunningham said.

"We believe it.


Quoting Albert Einstein, he added: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

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