August 24, 2021

Kris Nordstrom, Luke Tillitski: School Performance Grades: A Legislative Tool for Stigmatizing Non-White Schools

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This summary of a report from the North Carolina Justice Center looks at how the state’s school rating system targets schools in poor non-white communities.

Over the past 20 years, many states have adopted school performance grade systems (SPGs) that assign every school an A-F letter grade as a measure of school quality. Ostensibly, such systems are intended to inform the policies of lawmakers, the educational strategies of school leaders, and the school choice decisions of families. Too often, however, SPGs rely on narrow test-based measures of school quality with limited validity. The data seldom inform policymaking or school operations. Instead, such systems all too frequently stigmatize schools for community conditions outside of the school’s control.

For the past eight years, education stakeholders have recognized that North Carolina’s A-F SPG system disproportionately assigns failing grades to schools that serve students from families with low incomes. This report builds upon this analysis by examining the extent to which SPGs also stigmatize on the basis of race. Such analysis is important because a strong correlation between North Carolina’s SPGs and race would imply the need for policy solutions that directly seek to remove the unique barriers that society creates for Black, brown, and Native students in addition to policies that seek to remove the barriers placed in front of students from families with low incomes.

As this report demonstrates, North Carolina’s SPG system needlessly stigmatizes schools that serve Black, brown, and Native students. Schools enrolling such students are much more likely to receive “failing” grades than schools that are disproportionately white and Asian.

One would expect SPG data to spur legislative leaders to act in order to address the apparent school quality deficiencies in schools that serve non-Asian students of color and students from families with low incomes. Sadly, this has not been the case.

Since the inception of North Carolina’s A-F SPG system, 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. At the same time, lawmakers have resisted any reforms to the system that they know stigmatizes schools based on student demographics.

Such resistance calls into question what is motivating state leaders when it comes to addressing inequities in our schools. 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?

Read the full summary, with links to the full report, here.

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