By: Michelle Antoine
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI) school report cards show Johnston County Public Schools are in serious academic trouble. In 2012, Johnston County Schools performed academically in the top one-third of schools districts in North Carolina. As of 2019 we rank in the bottom third of the state.
The 2019-2020 school year did not require end of year testing, and local education agencies and state agencies were not required to display the little data they did have, due to the COVID-19 closures. The newest dreadful test data from the 2020-2021 school year shows huge declines in learning, adding to Johnston County Schools already anemic academic performance, and that may signal big problems ahead.
The recent release of state-wide scores from the NC DPI, from the 2021 end of year testing data show drops in scores compared to 2018-2019, with the majority of NC students state-wide coming up below proficient on grade-level work. The important Beginning Of Year 3rd grade reading scores (BOG3), demonstrated increased failing scores.
The level one, lowest proficient scores possible, jumped from 49% of students to 58%, and the top passing proficiency score of a level five had only 1.8% of students meeting the mark. The instructional data sent up to the state from local districts when compiled demonstrated that nearly 23% of students in Public North Carolina schools are at-risk for academic failure.
There is little doubt the last NC DPI report card data from the 2018-2019 school year is a rosy picture compared to the academic level our students have achieved during the 2020-2021 school year.
The NC DPI filed for, and was granted, a federal waiver to forgo displaying grades for school performance for 2020-2021, and the NC General Assembly has already introduced Senate Bill 654 to waive state requirements in the same way for our upcoming school year. Senate Bill 654 will likely pass through the legislature without issue and states, “State Board of Education shall not calculate achievement, growth, and performance scores nor display performance scores, growth designations, and letter grades for schools for the 2021-2022 school year.”
A lost year of learning
We will have very little accountability in how our students are performing in the next year, and Catherine Truitt recently described the scores we saw from 2020-2021 as “what appears to be a lost year of learning.”
In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly legislated the NC DPI must use an A-F grading scale to measure all Public, and Charter schools and report them openly. Initially the legislation demanded a 10 point grading scale, but it became clear in the first year of use that a 15 point scale would be the only option to keep a deluge of schools from being reported as failing. The 15 point scale is based on 100 points, with an A 100-85, B 84-70, C 69-55, D 54-40, and F below 39. The 15 point scale, although used from 2013, was formalized in legislation in 2019.
The A-F grade score uses two main measures. Growth Achievement, a more subjective measure which comprises 20% of the grade, and Academic Test Achievement, a more objective measure, fills the remaining 80% piece of the score. The 80% Academic Tests portion includes end-of-grade, end-of-course, ACT, graduation rate, college/workplace readiness measures and graduation rates. The 20% portion of School Growth uses a measure by SAS analytics called EVAAS (Education Value-Added Assessment System).
The EVAAS in its most basic understanding uses a data algorithm to compare a students’ academic scores year-over-year, and measures that yearly progress against the other students in his school, and students statewide. If the student shows a sustained or increased level of achievement, no matter the original level, that is a positive growth measure.
So a student may never reach proficiency and still meet Academic Growth metrics, helping raise NC DPI report card scores.
Algorithms map out expected growth, and the exact mechanism for those measures aren’t open source, so it isn’t clear how SAS comes up with their scores. Teacher’s performance is also measured with this tool, although it is facing scrutiny in the courts with 14 pending lawsuits, and a large settlement to teachers in the Houston TX, ISD.
The EVAAS algorithms were changed from school year 2018 to 2019, as noted on the NC DPI Report card website, “accountability measures used to calculate the achievement score and growth score changed slightly in 2017–18 comparisons… of School Performance Grades in 2017–18 to earlier school years’ results should be done with caution.”
The NC DPI warns report card grades for those years are not directly comparable. With this anomaly a fair consideration of successful and failing schools must include the most recent data available from both school years of 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.
Johnston County has 45 public schools, and over the two-year reporting period of 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, 21 of those schools have borderline or failing scores of 56% or below, with 17 solidly in the failing category. Over one-third of Johnston County Schools fell below 54%, earning a D or F letter grade, with 14 making the current NC DPI low performance list, that is nearly double the average suburban failure rate according to My Future NC.
In 2018, 33 of the 45 schools did not meet growth expectations, and after EVAAS made a more generous data measure in 2019, that was cut to 16 schools, with 42% still not meeting Academic Growth. Selma Middle School has failed so miserably they are scoring an F and earning only 33/100 points.
According to the NC DPI only two schools in Johnston County scored above 85% to earn an A on the report cards, Johnston County Early College and Johnston County Schools Technical Program. Not one traditional Johnston County School made an A grade in the two-year school span.
Only seven schools scored above a 70% to earn a B in 2019, only after the academic and growth portion of the NC DPI report card grade was retooled, giving a boost to scores overall.
In 2017-2018 only two schools made a grade of B, Cleveland Elementary School and Corinth Holders High School.
Three of the five that moved into the B grade category did not meet growth expectations; Cleveland High School, Cleveland Middle School, and Riverwood Elementary School.
Johnston County Schools has 23 primary schools, with only two of those elementary schools making an A or B grade in the two-year period of 2018 and 2019, 14 of those elementary schools fell below a 56% report card grade in one or both of those years.
When 60% of our elementary schools are failing to provide the building blocks for learning in the early grades, the Johnston County Schools are failing our student’s future academic success. The lack of face-to-face learning in these early grades would be a further detriment, as we have seen from preliminary scores from last year when children were remote. Keeping schools open and in-person must continue to have any hope of righting this ship.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires schools parse out subgroups to determine success of at-risk groups of students, including English Learners, Students with Disabilities, Black, Hispanic, American Indian Students, and a few other categories. In NC if a school has one or more subgroups that collectively earn an F letter grade in the schools achievement testing, the school is added to a list called the Targeted Support Improvement- Consistently Underperforming (TSI-CU). In Johnston County we have 30 of our 45 schools the in the TSI-CU group. Two-thirds of our schools aren’t meeting even the low standard of 40% to earn a D, for our most at-risk student populations. Cooper Academy, West Johnston Middle, Selma Middle, Benson Elementary, Benson Middle, West Smithfield Elementary have all scored so poorly they have been at risk for state take over, and ultimately were allowed into the experimental Re-start School program, which gives them flexibility more in-line with a charter school, to hopefully improve their academic trajectory.
The NC DPI through legislation in 2016 started the Innovation School District (ISD) program, which allows the state to step in and turn over control of local failing public schools to private operators. The eligible schools are put on watch and warning lists, which were published on the ISD program website early this spring.
Included Johnston County schools on the list were Cooper Elementary, West Johnston Middle, Selma Middle, and Smithfield-Selma High School.
In 2020, the NC DPI came under the control of newly elected State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, and significant changes are happening in the DPI under her tenure. The website under Superintendent Truitt has made dramatic changes, and the open lists of ISD schools have been taken off the DPI website. Given the low level of support for the ISD program, and Local Education Agencies, including Johnston County, entrenched position not to give over control of their failing schools, along with Truitt having expressed no desire to continue the program, the controversial ISD project will almost assuredly be phased out and ended in the next two years.
Johnston County Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy announced his commitment that all 45 schools in our district will be scoring at an A, B, or C level report card grade by 2023-24 school year. Despite being applauded for his bold statement, this was a 5-year vision set back in the fall of 2019 under interim Superintendent Dr. Causby, and led by Kristy Stephenson the Executive Director of School Improvement and Accountability.
The plan presented by Dr. Bracy to incentivize better performance included a teacher bonus of $1,000 at schools that attain a “met” rating for Academic Growth, a $2,000 bonus at schools that “exceeded” growth, and a $3,000 bonus for D and F schools that rise to a C grade or better. Ancillary staff would get bonuses half those amounts, if goals are met. While the EVAAS algorithm is likely once again to be revamped by SAS in the coming year, and may encompass more generous measures to weight the 20% of Academic Growth so bonuses will likely happen in many schools, the overwhelming negative Academic Test scores we are getting glimpses of, coupled with our ongoing declines, and Covid19 learning loss will likely hinder Dr. Bracy’s overall goal.
The shifting focus in education away from regimented, teacher-led instruction with paced guides and time-tested methods of step-by-step evidence based instruction to a more soft approach of student-led learning, with the teacher as a facilitator and a focus on group work is failing- miserably.
Coupled with the distraction and financial drain of Equity programming, Dr. Bracy is in serious trouble with meeting the improved schools vision without a sober reality check, and a refocus to methods that work. The School Improvement Teams and School Improvement Plans that have been long standing in our district have been unable to move these scores out of the free fall over the past 5 years.
Our schools seem to be under a cultish educational junk science spell, with big promises, motivational speakers, paradigm shifts, and new ways to make the wheel. But sometimes, in fact most times, the wheel is just the wheel, and making it a square gets you nowhere.
Michelle Antoine, B.S., B.A., M.S. is a Johnston County resident, formerly licensed teacher, counselor, education reform advocate and mom to eight children.