More than a third of U.S. states assign letter grades to schools based on various formulas that include to one extent or another standardized test scores. This post is about the effects of this policy on one student and teacher in North Carolina, where letter grades are given based entirely on testing data.

The author is Justin Parmenter, who teaches seventh-grade language arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. An educator for more than 20 years, he started his teaching career “believing that I was going to transform every child,” just as many first-year teachers do when they are placed in schools with high-needs populations. He says he quickly learned how complex teaching is.

Parmenter is a fellow with Hope Street Group’s North Carolina Teacher Voice Network. He started his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania and taught in Istanbul. He was a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year in 2016, and you can find him on Twitter here.

He has written before for this blog, including a post in which he wrote about his evolution on thinking about using standardized test scores to evaluate students and schools, in which he said:

Standardized test measures show …. [a] negative correlation between socioeconomic status and test results. Educational psychologist David Berliner’s extensive work on the subject has found that out-of-school factors, including inadequate medical care, environmental pollutants, food insecurity, neighborhood characteristics, family relations and family stress, all play a large part in creating existing achievement gaps and limit what schools can accomplish on their own. Rather than holding our schools and teachers solely responsible for those gaps, he suggests we work to address inequalities rooted outside the schoolhouse.

What are the consequences of a school-grading system? Teachers and students are viewed as successes or failures based on that single grade; people look at the scores when they are buying a house or making decisions about where to send their children to school. Failing grades also reinforce the narrative that public schools are not meeting their students’ needs, which provides fuel to the school choice movement that seeks to expand alternatives to traditional public school districts.

Parmenter’s school has been given a “B” grade by the state, but in this post he explains how one test score — in this case for an end-of-grade reading test — can feed into the overall school grade and how it can falsely reflect the achievements of a teacher and a student. Schools can work with many students who make enormous progress in a school year, but that work is not properly reflected in a test score or a school letter grade.

By Justin Parmenter

Since the 2013-14 school year, North Carolina schools have been assigned letter grades to indicate how well they meet their students’ needs. Those grades are calculated using a formula of 80 percent proficiency and 20 percent growth — which means that standardized test scores are essentially the sole measure. Proponents of this formula say the ability to pass a high-stakes standardized test is what matters most, regardless of student background. Critics say it unfairly stigmatizes children of poverty and that how much a student grows during a school year is a more accurate measure of school quality.

Indeed, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s most recent analysis of Performance and Growth of North Carolina Public Schools clearly shows that school report card grades and levels of poverty are inversely proportional to each other. As poverty goes up, school grades go down:

Lost in the discussion is the fact that policies like this impact real people.

I had a student who immigrated to Charlotte last year. He spoke no English when he started sixth grade. Each day I saw him striding down the halls alone, head down, fists jammed in his pockets.

When this school year began, the boy, now in my seventh grade English language arts class, would not answer when I spoke to him. He avoided interaction with his peers, and his participation in schoolwork was limited. His first formative reading test result showed we had lots of work to do.

Even though he rarely responded in the beginning, I talked to him every chance I got. I greeted him first thing in the morning, inquired about his weekend, had mostly-one-sided conversations with him about soccer, asked his opinion about things in class. My 20 years in the classroom have taught me that the amount of progress we made would depend on the quality of the relationship I built with him.

Our English as a second language teacher worked tirelessly to modify the content of the class so that it was accessible to him. Together we developed assignments that connected with his personal interests so that he was motivated to do them. He began to feel that school was about him and to experience some success.

In class, I intentionally surrounded him with kind and supportive peers. I gave him reading partners who were patient but also persistent, and I explained to them why they’d been selected for this important work. They read with him every single day in a small group setting (three students) and helped to develop his confidence. At first he read barely above a whisper. As time went on, I began to detect some incremental increases in volume.

We read novels aloud in class, and at first he only had to read a paragraph or two. I remember the first time he read a whole page by himself. When he got to the end, his classmates burst into applause, and the ghost of a smile crossed his lips.

This student began to greet me when he entered the classroom and occasionally raise his hand and ask questions during class. He wrote his third quarter short story project in his native language, then painstakingly translated it into English. His last formative reading test result was still rough, but it showed definite improvement.

Last week, he took his first reading end-of-grade test. (Regardless of how long a child has been in the United States or how much English they know, they take the same test as our native speakers.) The morning of the test, he was the first one in the classroom, so we had a little time to talk.

I told him I knew the test would be harder for him than for any of the other 25 students in the room. I asked him if he remembered how things were at the beginning of the year and how far he’d come since then. I explained that I didn’t expect him to be perfect, just wanted the result to reflect how hard he had worked and how much he had grown. He didn’t say much, just nodded his head.

This boy spent nearly three hours on his test. At one point, he raised his hand and asked me what a word meant (I didn’t tell him, but I did take it as evidence that he was working hard and reading carefully).

When the results came back they were what I expected: He showed substantial growth since that first formative reading test, but he was still far from being on grade level like his native English-speaking peers.

The fact that he is still reading below grade level carries far more weight than the tremendous progress he made this year when it comes to how the state reports the supposed effectiveness of our school. Viewed through this lens, his failing grade offers a stunningly inaccurate picture of what really happened.

Last spring, members of the North Carolina House of Representatives sponsored a bill that would adjust the School Performance Grade formula to 50/50, giving more weight to how much students grow throughout the course of a school year. The bill passed the House by a vote of 116-2. It has been languishing in the Senate Rules Committee (sometimes called “the place bills go to die”) ever since.

No single letter grade can accurately measure all the progress that takes place under a school’s roof. But if we insist on trying to simplify results in this manner, the least we can do is move the metric in the direction of greater accuracy by placing a higher premium on the growth each student shows. The current system does a huge disservice to this student, to me, and to the other teachers who worked hard to support him. It does precisely the same disservice to thousands of other students and teachers all over North Carolina every year. It’s time for our legislators to address it.

I talked with the student about his end-of-grade test score. I told him how proud I was of all the progress he made since August. I said if he continued to work hard and push himself outside his comfort zone the results would just keep getting better and better. He didn’t say a whole lot, just looked at me and smiled a little.

His test score, and North Carolina’s school performance grades, may say this year was a dismal failure for him and me, but we both know it was a resounding success.