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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

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The 2014-15 school performance grades are in, and while New Hanover County performed better than the state average in most areas, the results are far from impressive. Nearly 58 percent of the district’s public schools received a letter grade of C or below.

State lawmakers insist the A-F scale offers a clear statement about school quality, but the results are more indicative of the socioeconomic makeup of our schools.

In general, the district’s lowest-poverty schools posted the highest performance scores, while those with the highest poverty rates came up last. Freeman School of Engineering and Snipes Academy of Arts and Design, magnet schools that don’t really attract as diverse of a student body as intended, received F grades. More than 90 percent of Freeman students and 80 percent at Snipes were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

At the other end of the scale, Codington, Ogden and Parsley elementary schools received As. Wrightsville Beach received an A and had the highest proficiency levels, with more than 95 percent of students testing proficient.

Codington had 26.2 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch last year; the other three had fewer than 20 percent receiving subsidized lunches. At Wrightsville Beach only 9.14 percent of the 350 students received free or reduced-price lunches.

Performance grades are calculated using a school’s overall scores on standardized achievement tests combined with students’ measured academic growth from one grade to the next. Test scores account for 80 percent of the performance grade, growth 20 percent.

There were bright spots: The two early-college high schools, which are small and socioeconomically diverse, were the only high schools to earn As from the state.

Overall, though, the socioeconomic disparity is easy to see statewide. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction states 98.6 percent of schools receiving an F grade and 94.4 percent of those with a D had student poverty levels above 50 percent. At the other extreme, 89.9 of A-plus schools and 80.5 percent of A schools had poverty rates below 50 percent — and often well below that.

New Hanover Schools Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley acknowledged the disparity.

“They tend to mirror poverty,” he said of the performance grades. “But that’s not to take away from those A schools. … Those A schools have great instruction going on.”

He said the other schools also have “great instruction” but also “higher challenges.”

He’s right that in lamenting the socioeconomic disparities, we should take nothing away from the accomplishments of our top-graded schools. New Hanover County’s schools are superior in many ways, and we should be proud of our high-ranking schools.

But while it is important to have some way to measure achievement, letter grades don’t really tell us much. They put too much weight on standardized test scores -— which, history has shown us, can be predicted with considerable accuracy by the income and education levels of parents — and not enough on individual student growth.

All students can learn, and our schools can do much better, no question. But we also must acknowledge that teachers at our high-poverty schools have greater challenges. Their students often have more obstacles to overcome. While these students may fall short — sometimes very short — the measure of whether their teachers are succeeding can best be seen in academic growth from one year to the next.

Poverty does not entirely explain the generally mediocre achievement at the middle and high school levels. Among traditional middle and high schools, none received higher than a B. Noble Middle was the only grade-B school, while Hoggard and Laney high schools also received Bs.

Again, those grades don’t tell the whole story. New Hanover’s top students are far better prepared for life after high school than many of their peers, who may be intelligent but not necessarily interested in a four-year degree. School officials are working with state lawmakers to craft a proposal for a career and technical high school, with a goal of graduating students who have an education and also skills to go to work immediately.

No longer is a high school diploma enough to get more than a low-wage, low-skill job. By emphasizing career paths along with the three Rs, there is a better chance of graduating students who are ready to take their place in a competitive and highly technical job market.

The technical school also may help improve the graduation rate, which lags a bit behind the state average. Graduation rates increased at the state level to 85.4 percent, but New Hanover County’s remained nearly the same at 81.6 percent at the end of the 2014-15 school year, compared with 81.4 percent the previous year.

We do better than the state in most areas of achievement; we can do better there as well.

To see New Hanover County’s results, use this link: http://bit.ly/1hTWMuM

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