NC may make it easier for students to pass state exams

03/05/2014 7:30 PM

03/06/2014 1:11 PM

North Carolina education leaders are considering scoring changes that would make it easier for students to pass state exams, potentially saving thousands of third-graders from having to go to summer reading camps under the new Read to Achieve law.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote Thursday on new standards that will lower the score needed to pass state exams, likely affecting large numbers of students who were on the edge of passing under the measures used last school year. The biggest impact of the change would be to lower the number of third-grade students who risk not being promoted under Read To Achieve.

If the proposed new scores had been used last year, students’ passing rate on the state’s third-grade reading test would have jumped 11.6 percentage points, according to Tammy Howard, director of accountability operations for the state Department of Public Instruction. She said the change would have meant that between 10,000 and 12,000 additional third-grade students would have received passing scores.

The change is splitting state board members, with some saying it could give families a false sense of security about their children’s ability to read. But other state board members and state education officials disagreed, saying the new scores more accurately depict students’ level of achievement.

“This is not lowering standards,” Howard told state board members on Wednesday.

Since the 1990s, achievement levels on state exams have been divided into four levels, with Levels 3 and 4 considered passing and Levels 1 and 2 not proficient. Under the new proposal, the exams would add a Level 5. Level 3 would become the equivalent of high Level 2 scores in last year’s exams.

Howard said the change does not amount to lowering standards because the state would only report Level 4 and 5 scores as passing to federal officials. She also said that reports sent to parents of Level 3 students would say that they have “sufficient command” of the material “but are not yet on track for college and career readiness without additional academic support.”

But the Level 3 scores would be counted as passing for state purposes, including Read to Achieve.

State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson repeatedly told board members that the changes would affect tests at all grade levels and were not being proposed just for third grade.

Howard said that if the new scores had been used last year, passing rates would have jumped between 7 and 17 percentage points across the grade levels. Last school year was the first time that state exams were given under the Common Core State Standards, resulting in passing rates below 50 percent in many grade levels.

Much of the focus of Wednesday’s discussion was how the change would affect the Read To Achieve program. Under the program, third-grade students who don’t pass the reading exam face attending summer reading camps and not being promoted.

Amid fears that large numbers of third-grade students would fail, the state board allowed school districts last month to use local tests to show students are meeting the Read To Achieve requirements. The change in scores would further exempt students from the consequences of the law, which was pushed by the Republican-led General Assembly.

State board member John Tate said Wednesday that he would oppose using the new scores.

“I’m going to have to vote against this, because I want them to go to summer school and get the help,” he said.

State board member Patricia Willoughby said she was “really struggling” with using the new scores. Willoughby said she’s concerned that the Level 3 students wouldn’t get the help they need.

But Howard said that reducing the number of students who are in Level 2 will make it easier for schools to determine what level of help students need.

“The whole point of standard setting and assigning levels is, at the end of the day, to know who we should assign services to,” she said.

Howard’s point was echoed by Dale Cole, a Beaufort County principal who is an adviser to the state board.

“It’s better to have five levels,” he said. “We can better identify our students and better use our meager funds for support structures.”

Board Vice Chairman A.L. Collins said he now supports using the new scores.

“Level 3 doesn’t mean the child is where we want the child to be,” he said. “It just dictates a different level of intervention.”

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