- Associated Press - Friday, December 30, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - While the South Carolina agency that oversees student testing hasn’t officially recommended grading schools A through F on public report cards, the very suggestion has prompted a backlash from educators.

District superintendents, state Department of Education officials and teachers’ representatives were among opponents speaking against the idea at a Dec. 12 subcommittee meeting.

“No matter the intent of letter grades, the result will be students labeled with the same grade as their schools,” said David O’Shields, Laurens 56 superintendent. “I think such pronouncements inhibit economic growth and encourage apathy and hopelessness.”

The state has rated schools by the terms “excellent,” ”good,” ”average,” ”below average” or “at risk.”

The letter grades are under discussion as the state’s Education Oversight Committee attempts to craft a new, single education accountability system that’s simple to understand and more informative. It will replace the dual - and often contradictory - state and federal rating systems that have confused parents for years.

The agency’s drafted proposal calls for each school to receive a single rating to sum up its performance on various benchmarks, including testing achievement, graduation rates and student progress. The proposal makes no recommendation on what to call the ratings.

But the report says 17 states have an A through F grading system because it is “widely understood” by non-educators. Those include neighboring North Carolina, Georgia and most other Southeastern states.

The agency is taking public comments through Jan. 5. The agency’s full board is expected to vote Jan. 17 on recommendations to send the Legislature.

The Department of Education, as well as a group of district superintendents, wants schools to be rated for each performance category - without a cumulative score - with phrases ranging from “exceeds expectations” to “fails to meet expectations.”

Michael Brenan, state president of BB&T, said those align with terms his company uses to evaluate employees.

Companies will not want to locate near schools literally labeled failing, he said.

The state Department of Commerce is “going to have a hard time selling a C or D or F to prospects,” said Brenan, who is chairman of the state Board of Education but said he was speaking only for himself. “We need something that’s more positive, more descriptive and leaves some hope there is opportunity down the road.”

He and educator groups also oppose the recommended “bell curve” that predetermines the percentage of schools with each rating. Forty percent of schools would fall in the middle tier - whether that’s a C or “average” - 20 percent would be dubbed what’s now called “good” and “below average,” and 10 percent each would fall into the best and worst tiers.

That means 70 percent of schools would always be a C, D, or F, and some schools will be stuck as Fs no matter how much they improve, said Sheila Quinn, a deputy superintendent for the Department of Education.

“We’re going to have a lot of schools that are Ds and Fs that are in our in districts with the highest poverty and our districts with the highest diversity,” Brenan said. “I believe that sends a very defeating message to those schools and those students.”

Neil Robinson, chairman of the oversight board, said he’s rethinking his support of rating schools A through F but still believes each school needs an overall “grade,” whatever it’s called.

As for the bell curve, he said, it’s also true that 70 percent of schools would be rated A, B, or C.

“It depends on whether you look at it in a positive or negative viewpoint,” he said. “I personally don’t like the bell curve because I think schools should be allowed to fall where they fall” according to their scores.

But Robinson warned educators they may eventually clamor for the predetermined percentages, as they offer protection against large numbers being in the bottom two tiers.

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