Lower test scores for NC schools show results of tougher standards

lbonner@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2013 

  • How would you do? From eighth-grade science test

    Which statement best explains how periods on the periodic table are organized?

    A. increasing atomic number from left to right

    B. increasing number of neutrons from left to right

    C. decreasing number of electrons from left to right

    D. decreasing atomic mass number from left to right

    From eighth-grade math test

    When 8 is added to the number that is produced by doubling the number x, the result is equal to 8 times the number that is 5 less than x. What is the value of x?

    Source: N.C. State Board of Education

— The sobering consequences of more rigorous classroom standards became clear Thursday when the state Board of Education revealed the dramatic drop in performance by students, schools and districts on standardized tests.

The overall passing rate was 55.8 percent in Wake, 34 percent in Durham, 68.5 percent in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, 50 percent in Orange County and 43.3 percent in Johnston. The overall statewide passing rate was 44.7 percent.

Districts have 30 days to send individual student scores to parents.

Compared with 2012 results, passing rates have dropped from 16 to 25 percentage points in reading, from 27 to 44 percentage points in math, and from 9 to 33 percentage points in science, depending on the test.

The results are based on standardized end-of-grade tests in reading and math in third through eighth grade, science tests for fifth- and eighth-graders, and end-of-course tests in three high school subjects.

“As many have already said, these are not the results we want for North Carolina,” said Tammy Howard, the state Department of Public Instruction’s director of accountability services. “This is not where we want our students to be. We want our students to make progress going forward.”

Officials from Gov. Pat McCrory down to administrators in local school districts have tried to prepare the public for the declines attributed to new tests based on new and more rigorous standards, including the Common Core standards for reading and mathematics.

State officials have emphasized growth – how much schools help students advance year-by-year – where the numbers look more encouraging.

More than 71 percent of schools met or exceeded growth in 2012-13, compared with nearly 80 percent the previous year.

“These results were expected given we’ve substantially raised the academic standards our students and teachers have to meet,” McCrory said in a statement Thursday. “Given that more than 70 percent of our schools met or exceeded their academic growth goals under the old standards, I’m confident that, in short order, our students will rise to the challenge of meeting these tougher academic goals.”

‘Beneficial in the long run’

State Superintendent June Atkinson opened her news conference with the growth statistics, which were illustrated by a giant chart.

“Even as teachers mastered new standards and helped students acclimate in them, our students grew academically and many of our schools met or exceeded expectations in that area,” she said.

Scores drop when states change standards, but student performance improves over time as teachers become more familiar with what’s expected.

Union County got a year’s head start teaching the new state standards, and its performance far outpaced the state as a whole.

Atkinson said she expects more students to show improvement. “As difficult as it is to see our performance numbers drop, I believe it will be beneficial in the long run,” she said.

Bob Luebke of the conservative Civitas Institute cast doubt on official explanations for the decline. Poor planning, testing untested standards, and ill-prepared teachers are all likely factors in the performance drop, said Luebke, a Common Core critic.

“Where is the evidence the standards are higher?” he said.

Achievement gap widens

Results of past tests were used to see whether students were ready to move to the next grade, education officials say, while the new tests have a different goal – to see whether students are being prepared for college and careers.

In addition to overall passing rates falling, achievement gaps between minority and white students and low-income and wealthier students widened on some tests.

For example, the statewide achievement gaps between white and minority students and low-income and wealthier students on the third-grade math test widened by more than 10 percentage points.

“It is typical when standards change that gaps widen, whether between subgroups, schools or school districts,” Brad McMillen, senior director of data and accountability for Wake schools, told county board members this week.

This set of test results will have no consequences for students, schools or teachers. But students’ results on tests taken next spring will largely determine what letter grades their schools receive, from A to F.

The state reports the results, along with other information such as graduation rates, to the federal government. The state must show specific levels of achievement for students overall and for subgroups such as African-Americans, Latinos, whites, economically disadvantaged students, and students still learning English.

Local districts

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro district met all but 27 of its numerous state and federal goals, but 20 of the 27 it missed were for low-income students.

“We recognize there is one group that stands out in the data, one group ... whose academic needs are not being met,” district Superintendent Tom Forcella said in a statement. “Our district’s greatest challenge is bringing up the proficiency levels of our economically disadvantaged students.”

Durham knew it would see a 30 to 40 percent drop in passing rates, said district spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson.

“The room was pretty quiet” at a recent meeting of principals to review results because “they have all worked so hard to move schools and students forward,” Pearson said.

The district is using these results as a starting point from which to chart improvement, Pearson said, noting that 77 percent of the district’s schools met or exceeded expected growth.

“We have to look at this as a baseline year and talk about moving forward,” she said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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