RALEIGH — Widespread increases in Wake County's student test scores have become the latest issue in the school district's contentious school diversity fight.
Preliminary results released on Wednesday showed higher performance by Wake students in elementary, middle and high school on state exams this past school year, with the racial achievement gap narrowing. Backers of efforts to mandate diversity in the state's largest school district say the academic gains show that the Wake school board majority that swept into office last fall didn't need to discard the decades-long policy of maintaining socioeconomic balance in schools.
"Teaching and learning is evident when we look at the scores," said Calla Wright, president of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children, which backs the diversity policy. "How can these people dispute that fact? The state is confirming that."
The school board majority voted this past spring to eliminate the diversity policy and is now developing a new model designed to send students to schools closer to their homes.
School board member John Tedesco, who will be the architect of the new assignment plan, joined supporters of the diversity policy in praising the efforts of the teachers. But he also said improved test results doesn't mean the board should have kept the diversity policy.
"This doesn't prove that the assignment model works," Tedesco said of the new test results. "This proves that teachers are making it work for our students."
Wake's new results show that 84.9 percent of students passed state end-of-course exams, typically given in high school, when retests are included. Without the retests, 80.6 percent of students passed. That compares to 80.1 percent in the 2008-09 school year.
Wake also reported that 85.5 percent of elementary and middle school students passed state end-of-grade math exams this past school year. That compares to 84.5 percent the previous year.
For elementary and middle school students on state end-of-grade reading exams, the passing rate was 76.5 percent. That's up from 74.7 percent in 2008-09.
Retests can count
For the first time this past school year, the state allowed school districts to count successful retests for high school end-of-course exams. Successful retests were first counted for elementary and middle school end-of-grade exams in the 2008-09 school year.
Passing rates for black, Hispanic and low-income students largely went up this past school year but still continued to lag those of white students. For instance, 53.6 percent of low-income students passed the end-of-grade reading exam, up from 49.8 percent the prior year. White students had a passing rate of 90.2 percent.
During last fall's election campaign, the four board members who won office cited low test scores for poor and minority students as proof the diversity policy didn't help those students.
But Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, says the latest test results show the benefits of Wake's policy of trying to keep schools diverse. Critics of neighborhood schools say it will cause some schools to have poverty levels so high that good teachers won't want to work there.
"If we're moving to schools where your best and most experienced teachers don't want to go to, the research proves that student achievement will suffer," Brannon said.
Diversity link doubted
Terry Stoops, an education policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, a think tank that supports the school board majority, disagreed. Stoops cautioned against drawing a direct link between this year's gains and the diversity policy.
Stoops said people will be able to get a better sense of how well the school district is doing academically when the statewide test results are released Aug. 5. In addition, Wake might not fare as well next week when preliminary results are releasing showing how the district fared under the federal No Child Left Behind program.
Tedesco, the board member, said there's plenty of room for academic improvement that he said will occur when the neighborhood schools model allows students to spend less time on the bus and allows parents to be more involved with schools closer to where they live.
"We've got a lot more steps to take as a community to get where we want to be," Tedesco said.
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