The State Board of Education approved new standards Thursday for state exams that will lower required passing scores, potentially saving thousands of third-graders from having to go to summer reading camps under the new Read to Achieve law.
State officials said the change – passed by an 8-4 vote – will more accurately depict students’ level of skill in reading, math and science, allowing school districts to determine which students need additional help. The change will likely affect large numbers of students who would have fallen just short of passing under the standards used last school year, when new exams under the more rigorous Common Core standards resulted in much lower passing rates than in prior years.
State officials say the new scores fall within the “standard error of measure” of last year’s minimum passing scores. The term refers to the margin by which a test may be inaccurate in assessing student performance.
“It’s a recognition that any test has error,” state schools Superintendent June Atkinson told board members of the new standards. “It can be positive for the student or it can be negative for the student.”
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However, critics say the change represents a retreat from the state board’s earlier stance on using the highest standards for measuring performance. The changes, while affecting more than just third-grade performance, will also help cushion the potential impact of the Read To Achieve promotion requirements going into effect this year.
State officials have said the new scores do not lower standards. But the new minimum scores for passing are the same as options that the state board had rejected in October.
“It’s just another example of DPI (Department of Public Instruction) manipulating and tinkering with the tests they created,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a right-leaning Raleigh think tank.
The new standards were approved Thursday with State Treasurer Janet Cowell and three other members dissenting. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest was not present.
Getting needed services
Split votes are rare, but some members feared the changes could result in students who are now being considered passing not getting the services they’d need.
“I’m concerned about the bubble kids who may miss out on intervention that they could have had,” said board member Rebecca Taylor, owner and operator of five Sylvan Learning Centers in Eastern North Carolina.
Atkinson said that those students would still get help.
Since the 1990s, results on state exams have been divided into four achievement levels, with Levels 3 and 4 considered passing and Levels 1 and 2 not proficient. But under the change approved Thursday, the exams would add a Level 5. Level 3 would become the equivalent of high Level 2 scores in last year’s exams.
The changes go into effect this school year, just in time for the startup of Read To Achieve. The program, which was voted into law by the Republican-led General Assembly, says that third-grade students who don’t pass the end-of-grade reading exam face attending summer reading camps and not being promoted.
State officials say if the 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. The change would have meant that between 10,000 and 12,000 additional third-grade students would have received passing scores.
“There were already concerns from legislators and DPI about too many children being retained,” Stoops said. “That was not popular. This seems to be a way to address the concerns.”
Wait and see
State Senate leader Phil Berger, one of the main proponents of Read to Achieve, was cautious in his assessment of the changes.
“While we have not yet received detailed information from the State Board of Education on the new scoring system, we all agree it is vitally important that every student learns to read,” Berger said in a written statement Thursday. “We’ll need to closely monitor these changes and be ready to assist children struggling to read, including those whose scores fall on the cusp of requiring additional help.”
The changes apply to more than just the third-grade reading test, affecting elementary through high school exams.
If the new scores had been used last year, passing rates would have jumped between 7 and 17 percentage points across the grade levels.
Atkinson said the changes enjoy broad support from educators.
“In small-group meetings with superintendents across the state, except for a very small number, most of the superintendents believed that this would allow them to have greater precision,” she said. “It will allow them to differentiate instruction.”