Test scores are down in NC public schools. What needs to change?

Fewer North Carolina public school students passed state exams this year, with the decline increasing over time for students in third grade despite a state push to get young children reading at grade level.

New state results from the 2017-18 school year released Wednesday also show that the state’s 12-year streak of rising high school graduation rates has ended. But state leaders say the graduation results can’t be compared to previous years because of changes in how the rates are now calculated.

State education leaders pointed to positives Wednesday about how the majority of schools are meeting growth expectations on state exams and that the number of low-performing schools has dropped.

But the new test results also showed several areas of decline.

“We have some things to celebrate,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said at a news conference Wednesday. “We also have things that will make us pause and have concerns.”

Go to https://bit.ly/2wGEwP6 for a Charlotte Observer/News & Observer searchable database of results for every North Carolina public school. Results are also available at http://www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting/ on the state’s website.

One example of a decline is how the percentage of students passing the state reading, math and science exams dropped to 58.8 percent in the 2017-18 school year. It was 59.2 percent the previous school year.

Even when the drop is small, Johnson said it still reflects that a lot of students declined. He said state test results seem to be plateauing.

“When we dig into the data, we see that some results go up, some results go down,” Johnson said. “But consistently the trend is that we are not where we want to be for students.”

An area where the scores seem to be going in reverse is performance of third-grade students on the state’s end-of-grade reading exam. State legislators created the Read To Achieve program in 2012 with the goal of trying to get students proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

The passing rate on the third-grade reading exams is now at 55.9 percent. It was at 60.2 percent in the 2013-14 school year and 57.8 percent in the 2016-17 school year.

Johnson said he hopes that efforts he’s pushed for such as reallocating state Read To Achieve funding to buy supplies and iPads for K-3 literacy teachers and reducing the amount of required assessments will improve performance.

Teachers and principals are working harder than ever and aren’t the problem, Johnson said. But he said what’s needed is a change in how students are taught.

“When you use status quo strategies, you get status quo results,” Johnson said. “We have been trying the same thing in our public education system for a number of years. Our system was designed a hundred years ago to fit a society in the Industrial Age.”

Johnson pointed Wednesday to examples of innovative practices such as greater use of personalized learning and state programs that give low-performing schools more flexibility like charter schools.

Two to four low-performing schools will recommended for takeover by the state’s Innovative School District to be run next school year by an outside group. The schools under consideration are Carver Elementary in Wayne County, Fairview Elementary in Guilford County, Gaston Middle in Northampton County, Hall-Woodward Elementary in Forsyth County, Hillcrest Elementary in Alamance-Burlington Schools and Williford Elementary in Nash-Rocky Mount Schools.

For more than a decade, state leaders, including Johnson’s predecessor, have promoted how the graduation rate has gone up each year. The new results set the state graduation rate at 86.3 percent, down from 86.5 percent the prior year.

High schools are now counting some students who previously hadn’t been factored into the graduation rate.

Despite the change, Wake County school officials celebrated Wednesday how the district’s graduation rate rose to an all-time high of 89.1 percent. Nearly two-thirds of Wake’s high schools are graduating more than 90 percent of their students.

“Year after year, we are sending an ever-increasing number of young people into the world ready for productive citizenship as well as college or career,” Wake Superintendent Cathy Moore said in a statement. “This doesn’t happen by accident, and I’m grateful for the continued commitment of our teachers, administrators, parents and students. Our goal is to make sure every child is able to graduate on time and is well prepared for whatever the next step in their journey may be.”

But the graduation calculation changes did result in most Wake high school seeing a drop in their numbers. Additionally, the new state results showed that the percentage of Wake students passing state exams declined from 67.2 percent to 65.8 percent.

In Durham, district leaders celebrated making their highest gains in students passing state exams in five years, with 48.3 percent passing this year. More schools earned higher grades in the state’s A-F grading system and fewer schools were labeled by the state as low-performing.

“The constant last year was our excellent teachers and staff,” Durham Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said in a statement. “What changed was that we had the opportunity to fill a number of vacancies among principals and central administrators, enabling us to set a tone at the top: higher expectations, greater support for educators, more accountability for results, and celebration of our successes.”

The state gives every public school an A-F grade primarily based on how many students pass state exams. Factors such as how much growth students show on exams and graduation rates also can impact the grade.

More than a third of the state’s 2,537 public schools got an A or B grade this year. But the results continue to show the pattern of how the grades correlate closely with school poverty levels.

Among schools where more than 81 percent of students come from low-income families, 69 percent of the schools received a D or F. In schools where the poverty rate is less than 20 percent, only 1.7 percent of schools received a D or F.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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