NC braces for dip in student test scores after first year of tougher standards

lbonner@newsobserver.comSeptember 4, 2013 

Superintendents and local school board members are bracing themselves for the release of standardized test scores next month that will show a sharp drop in the number of students who passed.

The State Board of Education is scheduled Thursday to set passing scores for students who took standardized tests last spring that were based on new, tougher education standards, including Common Core standards for English/language arts and math. If they adopt the scores the state Department of Public Instruction recommends, thousands of students who thought they were doing pretty well in school just a year ago – and their parents – will learn they failed the latest round of tests.

The board and its advisers debated how to cushion the blow for teachers, students and parents. Some advisers also worried public school critics will use the scores as a stick to further pummel public education.

Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District and the national superintendent of the year, said the drop will hurt morale in schools and lend fuel to criticism that public schools are failing.

“We have critics ready to come after us,” said Edwards, an adviser to the state board. He recommended that the board adopt a graduated system that would allow more students to pass while teachers get used to the new standards.

“Putting it in the context of everything else that’s going on, this is a tremendous blow to our teachers,” said A.L. Collins, state Board of Education vice chairman. “They worked extremely hard.”

He questioned whether students’ poor performance could be pinned on a flawed rollout of the new standards.

Test performance dives when the state changes tests. Last school year, tests changed as all public schools in North Carolina adopted more rigorous education standards. Other states that changed standards and tests, such as New York and Kentucky, also saw more students fail.

The scores will show that student proficiency dropped dramatically, especially in math. For example, about 48 percent of third-graders will have passed the end-of-grade math test with the proposed score, compared with 77 percent passing in 2011-12. On the eighth-grade math test, about 35 percent will have passed, compared with nearly 80 percent last year.

Results for students, schools and districts will be released next month.

Wallace Nelson, a board of education member from Perquimans County, said low passing percentages could hurt economic development in his small county. Everyone tries to explain the new standards, but the numbers will leave the perception that the schools aren’t good, he said.

“You try to recruit somebody, they say, ‘What about your schools?’ ” Nelson said. “It just sort of sucks the life out of not just the teachers, but of the county.”

Board member Olivia Oxendine said the results could cast a shadow over previous achievements.

“I can understand the public saying maybe we weren’t doing all that great in the past,” she said. “I just think this is troubling.”

But Tammy Howard, DPI’s director of accountability services, said phasing in the passing scores would leave some students with the idea that they are proficient when they aren’t.

“The heart of the conversation goes to content standards,” she said. “We are holding students to a higher level of expectations.”

State Superintendent June Atkinson has been traveling to newspaper editorial boards this summer to warn that test results will show a decline.

DPI is planning an hourlong public television show on the scores with a live studio audience where parents can ask questions, spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said. The department will also prepare talking points for local superintendents and will send letters to policy makers and legislators after the board sets the scores, she said.

By October, the department will have a new website that explains the scores.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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