Bad Grades: Johnston County Schools In Academic Free Fall

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.

Superintendent’s Commitment
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.


  1. You’re right it is disappointing that schools are not doing as good as they should. However where is the parents responsibility in this why aren’t they helping their kids learn better why aren’t they helping them with their homework why aren’t they making sure they do their homework why are they letting them play video games instead of doing their school work why are they living vicariously through their children because they play soccer and have to go to all these events instead of learning. I agree the school system should do better but the parents have a responsibility in the system also. It’s not all on the educators or the system most of it is on the parents. It’s easy for parents to complain it’s the system look at yourself in the mirror and ask what are you doing to help your child learn better.

  2. It’s time to vote them all out! Where is the accountability for the board? We have corruption exposed and then nothing happens… These people need to be reminded who they work for and we’re elected by.

    Time to remove them all!

  3. My kids did great! I actually took the time to help them with assignments and asked questions when needed.
    Seems to me that some people didn’t adjust to the adjustments made and now want to blame the schools and teachers.

  4. Abandoning the single income family hurt the family unit. Less reliance on each other and more importantly less commitment to each other touched off this problem decades ago. However, this sharp decline in the last 5 years rests squarely on JCPS administration and staff. Now, it’s the responsibility of the BOE and Board of Commissioners to hold admin and teachers alike accountable. First the BOE must force the garbage out and quality back in with curriculum, administrative staff, and teachers. Second it is the Commissioner’s responsibility to hold the purse strings closed until the BOE can demonstrate that the hundreds of millions of dollars that they command is used properly and strategically to elevate educational proficiency. All this equity, restorative justice, SEL, Union influence and other garbage needs to be tossed out, it does nothing but reduce the effectiveness of the teachers to bring students to the proper levels of proficiency that we could obtain just a few short years ago. Frankly, the best part of what I read are the performance based bonuses. The sad thing is that the teachers don’t even have the right tools to actually achieve those bonuses.

  5. This JOCO “Squad of the CRT Cult” school board members are fully aware they are on their last elected term. Parents and Tax Payers you will be seeing some of the most disrespectful condescending and arrogant actions to any parents that may speak up if allowed to at these school board meeting. I predict that this board in their last elected terms will display their real feelings of how ignorant you parents are and will show that your most loved ones, your children belong to the state once they have entered into this public school system. They will again tell you parents that they don’t work for you. I do believe we will see the true essence of the human beings that set on this board and it’s not going to be pretty. Parents the mesh mask makes a good protest mask, check them out.

    • Another CRT Can’t Re-elected Trump supporter. Blame it on a problem that was invented by right wing fear mongers.

      • Mr. John, I have ignored you because I was so hoping you would still keep
        commenting your response to the “Squad of CRT Cult” phrase I have so masterfully created. The phrase does it job very well and by your continued responses and you cannot offer no other debate or rejection of it, should make others that plan to run for this school board to take notice. Word Smithing is for the professionals Mr. John, but I do appreciate you at least taking a stab at it. Future school board members that intend on running against the “Squad of CRT Cult” take notice. Mr. John has given us what we need to know about using this phrase. Again, thank you Mr. John!

  6. My child maintained a 4.0 GPA last year even with half the year being virtual- He is also involved in extracurricular activities- I am a single parent and still managed to help him with his school work when needed, and forbidded him any television and video games until the school day was completed. All the responsibility should not be on our educators. The parents need to take responsibility for some of these failures as well.

  7. When was the last time we actually had a single board member that was actually there for the right reasons instead of personal gain?! Regardless of your opinion, I truly feel like Ron has the best of intentions and strives to always do the right thing. He is just up against the local deep state with basically no support from anyone on that board. There is a reason for the ongoing pattern of corruption and cover-ups which never seems to be of concern for anyone in a position of authority. The local swamp is deeper than we ever thought and I’m afraid it’s too far gone at this point.

  8. The differences in student performance correlate perfectly with socioeconomic levels. Growth (how much the students learn in a year) should be the driving metric, not proficiency. Don’t tell a story of you are going to leave out the most important parts.

  9. Teachers and administrators need to focus more on doing their jobs well instead of focusing on forcing masks and vaccines on our children.

    These actually expect me to believe that THEY CARE MORE about our children’s health than the parents when clearly they don’t even care about our children’s education. What a crock!

    Instead of reimagining law enforcement let’s reimagine public education because the entire public school system is rotten to it’s core. Our children deserve better than this.

  10. Folks, let me explain that vote that happen to require masks. Todd Sutton voted against it but is the chairman of the board and could had stopped that vote. Every board knows what’s going to happen and how a vote is going to come out ever before walking in the board room. Here the problem, Todd Sutton is in political trouble just around the corner of the next election. Mike Wooten is in political trouble but his eviction date is much further off. Both Sutton and Wooten got what they truly wanted and that was the mask mandate but needs to give the illusion that they are not part of this liberal progressive liberal “Squad of the CRT Cult”. They want you to think they have come to their common sense and are conservatives. Mike Wooten held to his board seat by only very thin vote margin last election and is hoping you will forget he is a liberal progressive liberal as well as Todd Sutton, but hey what the h3ll they got the votes to make sure the masks are back on. Parents and voters this is how this is preplanned well before they ever walk into that board room, don’t believe me then just ask chairman Todd Sutton that voted to keep the masks off why did he allow this procedure that reversed what you had thought was no masks? This board really believes you parents are so ignorant you would never know how this really works.

  11. Here’s what I’ll say to the Michelle Antoine’s of the world…

    Education is a partnership between educators, parents, and students. States are not capable of evaluating students by giving them a three hour test on one day of the school year or semester. Lots of people make lots of money convincing simple minds like Antoine that school performance can be measure through a test given and graded by people who have never even met your kids, let alone know your kids.

    And people like Antoine have also found that they can use these arbitrary one-day tests as a powerful form of political capital, so long as they only sell it to other similarly simple-minded people. As such, diatribes like the one Antoine has written really isn’t about any deep-seated concern for the education of our children, but instead is designed and shared solely to further their desire for political power and influence.

    Again, education is a partnership between three parties – students, teachers, and parents. Solutions to efforts to improve performance require all three parties to work together, each doing all they can to support the goal of academic success. You can’t point your finger at any one part of this triad and expect positive changes. Much like most doctors, lawyers, mechanics, engineers, etc are good, hard working, and dedicated to doing their best for their clients, so are teachers.

    It’s FAR past time to stop the finger pointing, the demonizing, the accusations, and all the plain old griping and complaining, and instead to find a way to contribute positively to solutions. If all you have time for is to write hit pieces against your personal pet demons and then pass it off as helping, it would be better for all of us if you just sat your backside down, shut your mouth, and worried about your own backyard.

    • Mr Worley, you hit the nail on the head. Testing has taken over as the end all and be all, it’s not. And yes, I believe she is only doing all these hit pieces for her own political gain

    • What is interesting is that this commentary by Mr. Woolery doesn’t address the facts. Instead it demeans the writer as an attempt to diminish the facts. The truth is there is nothing wrong with the tests. The tests proved up evidence for positive results and achieved high levels of proficiency for decades until 5 years ago. An analytic mind, and one who cares to process data, will immediately recognize this and seek to find correlation between the decline and the cause of such a decline. That decline here coincides with a change in curriculum and philosophy at the district level which was a move towards the self lead teaching model, equity, with steps away from traditional rote learning and the like. The experiment is an obvious failure and requires course correction.

      Instead, people with an agenda other than teaching children are aimed at distracting the public by creating “partnership” scenarios. All that does is make no-one responsible by making everyone responsible. The onus is on the administration to provide the teachers the tools to teach the students what they need to become proficient. If the administration isn’t doing their job the teachers and parents need to speak up. If the administration won’t do their job then the BOE is there to hold them accountable, if that won’t happen then the commissioners are to hold the BOE accountable by the power of the purse, if that won’t happen then the parents and residents need to vote in new members of both elected boards to force the administration and teachers accountable to do their jobs. That job is to provide a school system that produces proficient students. So in a sense Mr. Woolery is right, the parents (voters) need to do their job and hire a BOE that will fire the incompetence that has permeated JCPS.

  12. The evaluation of schools is based on outdated assessment models that test the same skills that were tested 100 years ago. Student-led, inquiry based education emphasizes 21st century skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and analysis. These will set our children up for success much more than memorizing a set of facts that they can Google in 20 seconds.

    Yeah, it’s frustrating to me that my kid never memorized his multiplication tables, but that same kid can put together a report based on the mathematical modeling of the spread of infectious disease and present it with confidence in a way that’s tech-savy, visually appealing, and persuasive. I’ll take that over instant recall of 7×8.

    If the students were tested on the skills that they’re learning and the skills that will benefit them in the future, you would see better results.

  13. This might be the most ignorant commentary yet. S person who claims to be an expert evaluates the proficiency metric and ignores the growth one. We can’t have this level of incompetence speaking on behalf of education.

  14. Len Ranger, couldn’t agree more. john, you’re obviously ignorant and don’t understand why parents let their kids play sports. The reason my kids play sports is not for any vicarious reason. It’s to get them outside and away from tv, tablets, etc. My wife and I also engage them in projects, reading, and chores around the house.

    Our experience with school has been that we’ve had to teach our kids at home over the past 15 months since they couldn’t be in school. Other parents may have a different experience. The problem with this is that my wife and I work full time, to provide for our family, and have to adjust our schedule or take time off. The other problem with this is some teachers chose to engage the students for about an hour a day (from home) and then let them go on their own, leaving us to take up the slack. SParr, we did the same thing and had similar results. Congrats to you and your kids.

    Concerning Critical Race Theory (CRT), you can call it what you want, nick name it, or acronym it but, it is inherently racist. It assumes that if you are of a certain race, you are racist. That is racist in and of itself.

    • My kids did well last year but it is a lot of work for parents. However, our teachers did everything they could to support my children including having time outside of class for students to tutor or work with the teacher. Our teachers provided times as early as 6:30am and as late as 6:30pm to accommodate parent/student schedules. I don’t know one teacher at my kids school who doesn’t deserve a raise. Teachers don’t make the decisions and most of what they do is dependent on the Governor of NC and our School Board.

  15. McFly, maybe you and your wife shouldn’t try to keep up with the Jones’s and over spend, that way one of you could stay at home with the children. As for CRT Communist Republican Tyranny. It is a theory invented by Republicans looking for a problem, just to keep Americans infighting so they don’t pay attention to what’s really going on which is the Republican wish for dictatorship control.

  16. john, Wrong again. I have no need to keep up with the Jones’s. Overspending is not a problem for me. My wife and I prefer to work and also to support, nurture, and teach our kids.

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