Lt. Gov. Dan Forest seems to want to have it both ways on the state’s stigmatizing A-F grading system for public schools.

The News & Observer reported that Forest’s recent appearance before the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce was dominated by questions from business leaders about education, with the grading system a primary concern.

The grades for schools are based on a formula that counts performance on standardized tests as 80 percent of the calculation of the grade and growth in test scores as 20 percent. That means that most schools with high percentages of low-income students that start behind other schools have virtually no chance to receive a high grade, no matter how much they improve.

In the first two years of the grading system, roughly 97 percent of the schools that received a D or an F were low-income schools, making the grades more an indicator of poverty than a measure of academic achievement.

One Johnston County business leader pointed out to Forest the great things happening at one local school that received a D grade and another said the stigma of a low grade hurts the community overall.

Forest said that “not all F schools are created equal.”

That’s exactly the point but what does Forest, who’s fond of making slick political videos on controversial issues, plan to do about it? He is on the State Board of Education after all and recently appeared in a video extolling the virtues of school choice.

Not much it appears. Forest also told the local business leaders that any grading system depends on “how the state communicates it to the community,” that he wants all schools to be A schools, and that “maybe we could cook the books a bit and make F schools look like D schools and D schools look like C schools” but that wouldn’t be a good idea.

Interesting that even many conservatives believe that the formula used to determine the grades needs to be changed to give more weight to growth in student achievement, which would give low-income schools a much better chance to receive a higher grade.

That’s not cooking the books, that’s rewarding schools for helping students make significant gains instead of branding the students and the teachers and the schools a failure.

Forest didn’t mention the proposal to change the formula.

And in case folks think that the stigma of the low grades for schools is not a problem, a recent television news story in Charlotte painfully proves otherwise.

WCNC was covering the sketchy plan by Rep. Rob Bryan to convert some low-performing schools to charters which could be run by out of state for profit companies. It’s an idea that has failed in Tennessee but Bryan is pushing ahead anyway with what amounts to the latest piece of the school privatization agenda.

The story about Bryan’s proposal included a quote from a parent of three children at Druid Hills Academy in Charlotte that received an F and were looking for another place to send their kids because of the grade. They told the reporter that the grade meant students were not learning anything at all in the school.

That’s not what the grade means of course. It means that the kids at the school, where 97 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, are not doing as well on standardized tests as students at more affluent schools.

And it doesn’t matter if they improve dramatically every year. They are still not likely to get a higher grade with the current formula. It also doesn’t mean that the teachers are not working hard.

The school was featured on ABC News and public radio earlier this year for the innovative methods teachers are using the help kids improve.

There appears to be plenty of learning going on at Druid Hills. But all the broader community sees is the F on the door.

It’s hard not to think that’s the point. The folks trying to dismantle public education need to convince people that schools are failing whether it’s true or not. That’s why the stigmatizing grading system is so important to them.

Maybe Forest can explain it all to us all in another video.

Chris Fitzsimon is the founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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