North Carolina Should Not Allow the ACT to Have This Much Power Over Our Schools

A little over two years ago, an extended editorial appeared in newspapers across North Carolina concerning public education. I happened to read it in the Winston-Salem Journal.

It was written by Walter McDowell, a board member of BEST NC. McDowell, a former executive with Wachovia, talked of the dire need to transform education in North Carolina. You can read that op-ed here:  http://www.journalnow.com/opinion/columnists/walter-mcdowell-n-c-budget-a-missed-opportunity-to-transform/article_38dd2903-b54c-57aa-a47f-fa82aea992b7.html.

In short, McDowell told the state it had a huge problem and that his consortium, BEST NC, was mapping a way for our transformation. He called it “Excellence: North Carolina’s Education Vision.”

“Recently, Excellence: North Carolina’s Education Vision was launched. It was developed with input and collaboration from education, business and policy leaders from across the state. Excellence outlines a shared vision to make North Carolina’s education system the best in the nation by 2030.

Inspired by this vision and the important work of our educators, the 115 business leaders who compose BEST NC will continue to work with the education community, the governor and the General Assembly on high-yield investments and systemic strategies that will dramatically improve students’ educational experiences in our state. It is our hope that our elected leaders see from this report that elevating educators must be at the top of the list in those discussions.”

It is always nice to think that we educators are being “lifted” in the eyes of the public, but McDowell used as one of the measures to qualify our state’s dire circumstances the state’s average ACT scores.

He said,

“Then, shortly before the budget passed, North Carolina received news that we are still last in the nation in college and career readiness as measured by the ACT exam. There could be no greater urgency in North Carolina than solving this education crisis.”

I responded to McDowell’s argument with a rebuttal. It was published in the 10/17/15 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal. Specifically, I responded to the use of the ACT as the barometer of the entire health of the NC education system. I argued,

“North Carolina is one of only 13 states (in 2015) that requires all students (EC, LEP, etc.) to take that exam, which has no impact on their transcripts, provides no feedback in its scores on how to improve student achievement and is administered on a school day on which other activities and classes take place. Most states only have paying students take the ACT on a Saturday; those students have an investment in the results, hence higher scores” (http://www.journalnow.com/opinion/columnists/stuart-egan-judging-schools-by-an-unfair-standard/article_0aa55234-8b82-5713-8114-65bc43e80eb1.html).

But now in this school coming year, the ACT is about to become the most “important test” that will be given in all of North Carolina high schools. That is thanks to CCRGAP, or the Career and College Ready Graduate Alignment Partnership.

It cannot be helped that taking out a “C” and the “G” from the acronym gives us “CRAP” was not noticed.

According to Section 10.13 of S.L. 2015-241 (and a presentation found created by the NC Community Colleges),

ACT1

What this is saying is that if any high school junior does not make a certain score on the ACT (or its particular subject areas), then they must go through remediation during their senior year using a curriculum chosen/designed by a local community college but delivered by the high school teachers within already prescribed core courses.

In short, teachers would have to take time in their already crowded and time-constrained classes to deliver more curriculum.  No extra time will be given. Curriculum standards for the actual classes still have to be met. Why? Because there will be a test for them.

Debate over what scores will be the threshold for whether a student must be remediated maybe just starting. What was reported to this teacher in a professional development workshop was the following:

GPA of 2.75 -or- 18 on English and 22 on Reading (tentative)

If you don’t know how an ACT score is broken down, then:

ACT

You can access that chart here: https://www.princetonreview.com/college-advice/act-score-chart.

What CCGRAP (as told to my school system’s English teachers) is saying is that all students must get at least 40 or 41 of 75 questions on the English section correct and 26 of 40 questions correct on the language portion to avoid remediation.

I have not even mentioned what happens with math.

That’s a high bar for all students. I repeat, a high bar. If you do not think so, then take the test yourself in a controlled situation. For students in North Carolina public schools, that administration will happen on a school day when they have other classes. Of course, many will succeed, but we are talking ALL students.

However, according to some sources, students can escape remediation if they have a high enough GPA. But some administrators have reported being told that it is not an “OR” but an “AND” when it pertains to ACT scores and GPA requirements.

The ACT just got a lot of power over our students.

Interestingly enough, State Superintendent Mark Johnson delivered an interview with EdNC.org and WRAL. In it he talked about “teaching high school students that college is not the only path to success” (https://www.ednc.org/2017/09/27/fighting-status-quo-inside-combative-world-ncs-new-public-schools-chief/).

But we’re about to let the ACT, a college-ready testing tool, determine the lot of all students during their junior year.

Yes, the ACT is considered a test of knowledge and how much a student has learned. But many studies do show that the ACT is as flawed in being concretely certain in a student’s ability to do well in college as the SAT. In fact, many studies show that grades and GPA are a better indicator than standardized tests. Here is some fodder on that: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/nail-biting-standardized-testing-may-miss-mark-college-students/.

Also, ACT scores seem to have a greater correlation to students’ household income levels. Consider the following:

ACT3

That’s from a Huffington Post report. Yes, it’s a left-leaning publication, but it is using only data points here that are really hard to refute (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/18/act-score-family-income_n_5600065.html).

We have in NC another rather good indicator of the effect of poverty in public schools. It’s called the School Performance Grade. The correlation between schools that scored “D” or “F” and high poverty levels is astounding.

The state of North Carolina pays for the administration of the ACT to all high school juniors during valuable class time on a regular school day. That’s a lot of money going to ACT. Furthermore, classroom teachers are having to administer the ACT as well as play “catch-up” with students because of the missed class time.

Let’s go further than that. If a student does not get a high enough score, that student will then have to be remediated with a curriculum designed by someone else by that a teacher who possibly gave the ACT and lost class time because of it who still has to teach the already prescribed curriculum to a large number of students in the same class period and classroom.

Oh, and DPI had their budget slashed by the General Assembly.

Oh, and we have lower per-pupil expenditures now than we did in the past when adjusted for inflation.

  • So, what does our State Superintendent Mark Johnson say about this in regards to his platform of less standardized testing?
  • Is this what Walter McDowell and BEST NC had in mind?
  • Is this really what we want for our students and schools?

Those are not rhetorical questions.

Our Schools Are Not Failing; Our Policy Makers Are – On Raleigh’s New Way of Measuring Schools

When you are the North Carolina General Assembly and you want to stop a string of court decisions that have declared your unconstitutional acts “unconstitutional,” then you change the judicial system in your favor. Or at least try.

When you are the North Carolina General Assembly and you want to remain in power on West Jones Street even when a majority of the political landscape does not favor your policies, then you create gerrymandered districts and discriminatory Voter ID laws.

And when you are the North Carolina General Assembly that is trying to privatize the public school system, you undertake a series of actions that weaken public schools such as school performance grades aligned with achievement, intentionally not fully fund schools, create class size caps with no funding of new classrooms, and throw millions of dollars into vouchers.

You try and disenchant the teaching profession by removing due-process rights and graduate degree pay from new teachers to a point where state education programs have experienced a significant drop in candidates.

And yet public schools are still doing the job.

So what do you do now? You change the rules. You change the criteria of measurements.

You simply change the playing field – all to create the illusion that public schools are failing.

For the last three years, schools in our state have been measured with school performance grades, a system adopted from Florida developed by the Jeb Bush administration with the intent on creating a false situation that public schools are failing.

Much of a school’s performance grade is determined by a school’s “achievement score:” a series of indicators put into an algorithmic formula to calculate a score that is then put into another formula to then determine a school performance grade.

For high schools the following was used to define a school’s achievement score this past year:

High schools will use the following indicators to calculate the achievement score:

  • End-of-Course Math I
  • End-of-Course English II
  • End-of-Course Biology
  • The ACT (percent of students who score 17 or above – UNC System’s minimum composite score requirement)
  • ACT WorkKeys (percent of students who achieve a Silver Certificate or better)
  • Math Course Rigor (percent of students who successfully complete Math III)
  • 4-year Graduation Rate (percent of students who graduate in four years)

Again, when calculating the achievement score for each indicator, the percent of students who meet the standard is divided by the total number of students for that indicator. To get the total School Achievement Score, the total number of scores or benchmarks meeting the standard for all indicators is added and then divided by the total number of scores or benchmarks for all indicators (from 2014 READY ACCOUNTABILITY BACKGROUND BRIEF SUPPLEMENT: North Carolina School Performance Grades – http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/accountability/reporting/spgbckgrndpack15.pdf).

Of course, it does not consider the socio-economics that students live in, but the scores certainly reflect it.

school grades

So, to guarantee that this school year’s scores will not be as good as last year’s, the North Carolina General Assembly is changing the rules, or rather the indicators. Since science departments have been doing so well with preparing students for the Biology EOC, that indicator will no longer be used.

That’s right. A state that is pushing STEM education to a point that “specials” are being threatened, the Biology EOC is not considered a “good” indication of school achievement.

Why drop Biology from the indicator list? Because that’s the one we as a state do best on. Simply check out the NC School Report Card Site. Look at your own district and it will be compared to the state averages. My school system from 2015-2016 is below.

EOC

To be proficient, a student must reach Level 3 at a minimum. Look at the state figures.

Those who scored 3,4,5 in Reading (English) was %67.2.

For Math – 54.7

For Biology – 72.7. That’s the highest one.

They are taking out the highest score and then using the rest.

Try telling a student that you will not be using the highest test grade in teh final average. Well, that’s what the state is doing.

It’s almost as if the NCGA saw that schools were doing too well and being too successful that it necessitated some sort of action to counteract that “growth” to help substantiate the need for all of the unregulated reforms.

With the removal of the BIOLOGY EOC indicator, school achievement scores will go down; therefore, school report cards will go down as well as school performance grades.

Add to that, the increased reliance on ACT scores. As relayed in an earlier post:

But now in the coming year, the ACT is about to become the most “important test” that will be given in all of North Carolina high schools. That is thanks to CCRGAP, or the Career and College Ready Graduate Alignment Partnership.

It cannot be helped that taking out a “C” and the “G” from the acronym gives us “CRAP” was not noticed.

According to Section 10.13 of S.L. 2015-241 (and a presentation found created by the NC Community Colleges),

What this is saying is that if any high school junior does not make a certain score on the ACT (or its particular subject areas), then they must go through remediation during their senior year using a curriculum chosen/designed by a local community college but delivered by the high school teachers within already prescribed core courses.

In short, teachers would have to take time in their already crowded and time-constrained classes to deliver more curriculum.  No extra time will be given. Curriculum standards for the actual classes still have to be met. Why? Because there will be a test for them.

Debate over what scores will be the threshold for whether a student must be remediated maybe just starting. What was reported to this teacher in a professional development workshop was the following:

GPA of 2.6 -or- 18 on English and 22 on Reading (https://caffeinatedrage.com/2017/10/01/we-should-not-allow-the-act-to-have-this-much-power-over-our-schools/).

However, that last sentence needs to be changed, because what was communicated recently was that it was not an “OR” situation, but an “AND” situation. To repeat, students would have to make a certain threshold score on the ACT portions of the test AND have a certain GPA. As of this post, it was a 2.7.

Let’s add to that. School report cards will now not only have one grade. It will have a multitude of them: a grade for each student population break down. It would take a textbook to show how that alone would allow the NCGA and DPI to use cursory grades to confuse the public about the effectiveness of a school. Imagine if there are 10 students identified within a certain “subset.” One student did not show up for the test and two students do not meet proficiency even though the students are identified by an IEP which highlights particular learning disabilities that are exacerbated by standardized tests. Seven out of ten of those students passed, but the report card for the school may reflect a letter grade lower than a “B” for that “subset.”

The state seems unwilling to explain why the sudden change in how schools are now measured, so the state probably will not go out of its way to explain fully what each subset report card score actually communicates.

Actually, the state is being willingly unwilling to explain.

Is it not also interesting that the new principal pay system is now linked to school performance? These new parameters to ensure lower school achievement scores will translate into lower school performance scores, hence a more “controlled” way of paying principals. If BESTNC, who brokered this new flawed principal pay system, did not know about this change in how schools are to be graded, then every school in North Carolina will be receiving a “B” or higher.

But we know better.

In a day when our General Assembly wants to use performance incentives and merit-based pay scales, it is rather obvious that they will also redefine what performance is and what merits actually receive the most “reward.”

So, what has our State School Superintendent said about all of this?

Nothing.

At least his “performance score” will not get any lower.

But teachers will continue to do the very job of educating students DESPITE what lawmakers do. They understand that the constant change in measuring public schools does not reflect that schools are failing.

It reflects that lawmakers are failing.