A Sustainable Approach to High School Accountability in North Carolina

As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets improved.” The same idea underpins school accountability frameworks — by tracking students’ learning and growth, educators, school leaders, and education policymakers can improve school performance and student outcomes.

Building an effective accountability framework, however, is no easy task. That’s why the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) lays out guidelines for state-run accountability systems, including requiring the use of standardized assessments to track progress.

North Carolina has had a high school accountability system in some form since the mid-1990s, which has since moved through several iterations, including modifications to meet ESSA requirements. Under the current system, each school receives a performance grade ranging from A-F. While this system offers educators and the public valuable information, ongoing concerns remain about its methodology and the burden it places on teachers and students. With many schools struggling to raise their scores, however, a clear need remains for comprehensive, effective assessment preparation solutions to help schools and students move forward.

Required Assessments in North Carolina

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) administers several tests in all public district and charter schools each year, starting in Grade 3 and continuing through Grade 12. The results of these assessments are a significant component of school grades. At the high school level, requirements for all students without documented exceptions include state-mandated end-of-course (EOC) assessments and the ACT or ACT WorkKeys:

  • Grade 9: NC Math 1 (EOC)
  • Grade 10: English II (EOC)
  • Grade 11: NC Math 3, Biology (both EOC), plus the ACT or ACT WorkKeys

North Carolina’s EOC assessments are aligned with courses required for graduation from state public schools and measure how well students have met state learning objectives. These EOC test scores must make up at least 20% of a student’s grade in the relevant course. However, if the student passes the course, they do not need a passing grade on the EOC assessment to graduate.

EOC test scores are grouped into four categories:

  • Not Proficient: Inconsistent understanding
  • Achievement Level 3: Sufficient understanding (grade-level proficiency)
  • Achievement Level 4: Thorough understanding (career and college readiness)
  • Achievement Level 5: Comprehensive understanding (career and college readiness)

Additionally, North Carolina High School juniors are required to take the ACT, regardless of whether they plan to attend college. If they have chosen to pursue a Career and Technical Education (CTE) concentration in high school, they may also take ACT WorkKeys, a standardized assessment that measures students’ career-related skills.

Calculating School Accountability Scores in North Carolina

Since 2013, all North Carolina public schools have received annual performance grades on an A-F scale. These grades, additional school data points, district and county-level summary reports, and state-level indicators are available on the state’s report card website.

At the high school level, 80% of each school’s grade is based on its achievement scores, while the remaining 20% is based on student growth.

The student achievement portion of school scores comprises a number of different indicators, each of which is expressed as a numerator and a demoninator:

  • Math EOC: The number of scores above Achievement Level 3 on the Math 1 or Math 3 EOC (depending on grade level), divided by the total number of scores
  • English II EOC: The number of scores above Achievement Level 3 on the English II EOC, divided by the total number of scores
  • Biology EOC: The number of scores above Achievement Level 3 on the Biology EOC, divided by the total number of scores
  • Four-Year Cohort Graduation Rate: The number of students who graduate with their four-year cohort, divided by the total number of students in the cohort
  • English Language Progress: The number of English language learners who demonstrate who meet benchmarks for language attainment, divided by the number of English Language learners
  • ACT/WorkKeys: The number of students who meet benchmark standards for either the ACT or WorkKeys (a score of 19 or above on the ACT, or a Silver Certificate or higher on WorkKeys), divided by the total number of students
  • Math Course Rigor: The number of Grade 12 students who take and pass the NC Math 3 course, divided by the total number of Grade 12 students

To calculate the overall student achievement score, the total of all numerators is divided by the total of all denominators. 

The state calculates the student growth portion of each school’s score using EVAAS. This statistical tool compares students’ actual growth (as measured by assessment scores) to their predicted growth to calculate each school’s “growth composite index.” This figure, used within the overall grading framework, is also the basis for each school’s growth designation: exceeds expected growth, meets expected growth, or does not meet expected growth.

Only the math and English EOC exams are factored into growth scores at the high school level.

North Carolina converts each school’s combined achievement and growth scores to a 100-point scale to determine its overall performance score and letter grade. On this scale, A=85-100, B=70-84, C=55-69, D=40-54, and F=<40.

In addition to overall school performance grades, each school receives performance grades and growth indicators for seven state-designated student subgroups: Asian, American Indian, Black, Hispanic, two or more races, white, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and English learners. Schools only receive subgroup scores if they have data from 30 or more students in that subgroup.

Current State of Standardized Assessment Scores in North Carolina

Like schools and students worldwide, North Carolina’s educators and students faced significant challenges during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — and its effects are still visible in state assessment scores and school grades.

Overall assessment scores significantly improved in the 2022-2023 school year compared to the prior two years but remained below pre-pandemic levels. The strongest gains at the high school level were seen on the Math 3 and Biology EOC assessments, while English II EOC scores have remained flat since 2020-2021.

Key statewide metrics 2022-2023 include:

  • 0% of Math 1 EOC test-takers scored Achievement Level 3 (grade-level proficiency) or above
  • 3% of Math 3 EOC test-takers scored Achievement Level 3 or above
  • 1% of Biology EOC test-takers scored Achievement Level 3 or above
  • 3% of English II EOC test-takers scored Achievement Level 3 or above
  • 1% of Grade 12 students achieved ACT scores of 19 or higher
  • 9% of graduation Career and Technical Education students achieved a WorkKeys Silver Certificate or better

Since assessment scores are the primary factor in schools’ performance grades, those grades have followed a similar trajectory in recent years. In 2022-2023, 35.4% of North Carolina public schools received scores of D or F — an improvement from 42.3% in 2021-2022 but still well above the 21.8% of schools that received a D or F in 2018-2019.

Notably, some educators and school leaders have raised concerns about the fairness of North Carolina’s current approach to school performance grade calculations. Since 80% of the grade is based on academic proficiency and just 20% is based on growth, they argue that schools with higher levels of economically disadvantaged students and students from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups may be designated as low performing even if they demonstrate a high level of student growth.

Subgroup data from 2022-2023 assessments reinforces that concern, showing significant differences in performance across groups. For example, 43.7% of economically disadvantaged students scored Achievement Level 3 or above on the English II EOC assessment, compared to 72% of students who are not economically disadvantaged. Significant racial disparities are also visible across the state.

The North Carolina DPI is currently working on changes to the school performance grade model, which must be approved by the state legislature before they can be enacted. However, standardized assessments such as the EOC and ACT will remain central to the accountability system.

How Are School and District Grades Used in North Carolina?

Since North Carolina’s school performance grades are publicly available, enrollment demand is tightly linked to each year’s score. The state has also laid out consequences — and incentives — for low or high performance.

Consequences for Low School Performance Grades

Per North Carolina statute, schools that receive a performance grade of D or F and an accountability growth score of met exceeded growth or did not meet exceeded growth receive a “low-performing designation.” These schools are required to create a plan to improve performance and growth, to inform families of the designation, and to share the improvement plans. Similarly, districts in which the majority of schools receive low-performing designations must create and share district-wide improvement plans. Schools and districts that continue to show issues with performance and growth may be subject to other interventions from the state.

Incentives for High School Performance Grades

In North Carolina, school leaders and educators can receive financial awards tied to student performance.

Principals can receive a bonus ranging from $1,000 if their school scored in the top 50% for growth to $15,000 if their school scored in the top 5%.

While elementary and middle school teachers can also receive bonuses for high growth scores, that funding is not available to high school teachers. Instead, if they teach advanced courses (such as AP courses), they can receive bonuses for each student with a benchmark score of 19 or above. If they teach specific Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses, they can receive bonuses for each student who attain a qualifying industry certification or credential.

Solutions for Improving School Accountability Ratings in North Carolina

Since standardized assessment scores are central to measuring both schools’ academic performance and their students’ growth, equipping students to succeed on these tests is the most effective way for schools to raise their performance grades.

However, preparing students to achieve high scores on North Carolina EOC assessments, the ACT, and WorkKeys requires focused teaching and practice since the assessments measure both curricular understanding and specific test-taking skills.

MasteryPrep offers equitable, mastery-based learning solutions for North Carolina schools and districts to improve performance on statewide assessments without detracting from the overall quality of students’ education. These comprehensive programs deepen students’ understanding of key concepts while also helping them practice and master the techniques and skills that they’ll need on test day.

MasteryPrep solutions are available for:

These comprehensive solutions don’t require any lesson planning or preparation on the part of teachers. With MasteryPrep’s EOC programs, students take a diagnostic pre-test at the start of the year to give teachers actionable data on their existing strengths and challenges. Then, students complete SnapCourses — engaging, online learning experiences that keep students reacting and interacting to progress videos and give extra support where they need it most. SnapCourses are based on the latest learning research and technology and use an adaptive model, meaning that they personalize learning pathways to support each student’s needs.

MasteryPrep also offers Boot Camps for the NC Math I and English II assessments. Boot Camps are half-day events that provide students with a targeted, last-minute review of content and test-taking strategy. Each Boot Camp is led by a MasteryPrep-certified instructor and can be delivered in-person or virtually.

In addition to North Carolina-specific solutions, MasteryPrep curricula are available for the ACT and WorkKeys.

Learn more about MasteryPrep Programs for North Carolina.

About MasteryPrep:

MasteryPrep provides mastery-based college readiness services and resources for the SAT®, ACT®, TSIA2, EOC, and WorkKeys®. MasteryPrep is the nationally preferred SAT and ACT prep provider of the Council for Opportunity in Education and licensed by ACT to include official ACT test questions in its programs. MasteryPrep partners with schools and districts to help level the standardized assessment playing field. MasteryPrep has ranked among the Inc. 5000 “Fastest Growing Companies” for six years and is a featured “Entrepreneur 360” company.


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