Landry: NC educators should focus beyond low-performers

November 12, 2013 

North Carolina adopted the Common Core curriculum in math and language arts and more rigorous tests for its students. The results have come in as expected: dismal.

Only 44 percent of students statewide passed the end-of-grade tests, and education officials are busy putting the best possible spin on those disappointing results.

Wake County students fared significantly better than the state average with 55.8 percent passing. This must be welcome news to Wake County public schools officials since it follows reports that the county’s high school graduation rate has fallen below the state average, with nearly 20 percent of students failing to graduate.

I have discussed student assessment with testing coordinators in our local schools, and they tell me that tests could easily be designed to produce almost any passing rate.

No one could tell me what is considered a passing grade for the new test. In the past, a passing grade on such tests could mean answering as few as half or even fewer of the questions correctly. If you consider that most end-of-grade tests involve multiple-choice questions where students select one of four answers, that is setting the bar low. Since someone who randomly chose answers from a choice of four would likely get 25 percent correct, a passing grade of 50 percent hardly translates into a mastery of the subject.

Like all other talents or skills, academic ability is not distributed equally among people. No matter how you measure it, the results, if plotted on a graph, would look like a bell curve with relatively few students at the top and bottom and a large majority in the middle.

This simple truth is something that many professional educators refuse to accept. They maintain that all students are capable of success if their teachers only recognized each student’s particular “learning style.”

Politicians are equally guilty of denying the obvious when they enact laws such as “No Child Left Behind,” a law as absurd as its title, as demonstrated by the waivers that have been almost universally granted to the states.

In the meantime, ever increasing resources are spent in trying to raise the test scores or passing rates of struggling students to meet standards that are at best undemanding and perhaps even laughable.

Commenting on Wake’s graduation rates falling below the state average, Wake County school board chairman, Keith Sutton, said, “We’re going to have to reach out to the more challenged groups.” He added that the board should “make a firm commitment, that it will raise graduation rates, regardless of what it takes.”

Those words offer food for thought.

“Whatever it takes” implies either that an even greater share of the budget will be spent on “the more challenged groups,” which already receive the lion’s share of limited resources. Or, alternatively, it means lowering standards until the desired numbers are met.

A commitment to do even more without limitation may or may not produce greater graduation rates, but it also may jeopardize the remaining students’ ability to compete against their peers in other states and countries by taking away available resources.

I always cringe when I hear a politician announce that “the future of our country is in the hands of our children.” This is usually said with halting breath as if the notion came in a revelation from above. Let’s face it, the future of all countries has always been in the hands of the next generation. It could not be otherwise.

What the educational establishment ignores, or refuses to recognize, is that the future well-being of our country lies mostly in the dreams and aspirations of the top 5 or 10 percent of our students.

I embrace the compelling argument made in the Nov. 10 Point of View “Where money, demographics, schools meet” in The News & Observer by Michael Jacobs, a professor from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. He said spending more on education does not necessarily translate into better educational outcomes. No school district spends more per student than Washington, D.C. schools and few school districts would welcome their test scores.

It is high time that education leaders stop whining for more money and instead trim administrative fat and use the savings to benefit teachers.

In general, education leaders need to learn to do more with less and, in particular, stop cheating gifted and average students for the benefit of low-performers.

Contributing columnist Marc Landry can be reached at

CORRECTION: The spelling of Kenan-Flagler Business School was changed at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013

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