Judge questions NC final exams, but not expected to issue an order

lbonner@newsobserver.comNovember 13, 2013 

  • Why education is in court

    In 1994, five rural, low-wealth school districts filed suit against the state claiming they were not receiving adequate funding to provide an equal education for schoolchildren. Their contention was that, as poor counties, they could not raise enough in local tax funds to ensure a quality education.

    In decisions in 1997 and 2004, the state Supreme Court held that that the NC constitution guarantees every child an equal right to a “sound basic education” and that the state’s efforts to provide that education to poor children were inadequate. The proceeding came to be known as the Leandro case, named for the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

    Wake Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. has overseen the state’s efforts to comply.

North Carolina public school students struggle with math from elementary school well into high school, according to test results discussed in a Wake County courtroom Tuesday.

The state Department of Public Instruction gave the results of new N.C. Final Exams to Superior Court Judge Howard Manning to consider as part of his annual review of student achievement. Manning is charged with holding the state to its responsibility to provide children with a sound basic education, as required in state Supreme Court rulings.

Manning is not expected to issue an order after the two-day hearing, which will end Thursday with testimony on low-performing districts and schools.

In a daylong hearing, Manning expounded on the achievement gap in third-grade reading, peppered Department of Public Instruction officials with questions and dissected the plan to have students reading at grade level before they advance to fourth grade. In past hearings, he has ordered improvements to high schools with low graduation rates and ordered the state to intervene in Halifax County schools.

The average score on the algebra II final exam was 36.3 percent correct for students who took the test in the fall of 2012, and 49.9 percent for students who took it in spring 2013. Student performance was better on final exams in history, civics and economics, and physical sciences courses.

The state won’t use the students’ final exam scores to determine whether they’ve learned course material, but eventually the scores will be used in teacher evaluations. They also count as part of a student’s grade.

Manning questioned the wisdom of having statewide tests but not considering the results.

“It defies logic to give a final exam and not know whether a child is proficient, and yet you’re going to evaluate teachers based on the results,” he said.

The final exams aren’t graded the way end-of-grade and end-of-course tests are, said Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at the state Department of Public Instruction.

Manning also reviewed the results of standardized end-of-grade and end-of-course tests that showed a sharp decline in passing rates from the previous year. Forty-two percent of elementary and middle school students passed end-of-grade math tests last year, and 36.3 percent of students passed the end-of-course test in math I. The tests were based on new classroom standards, including Common Core standards in English and math.

Manning was happier with Read to Achieve, the new state law pushed by Senate leader Phil Berger that requires most third-grade students to read at grade level before they’re promoted.

“I give this bill an A-plus,” Manning said. “The problem I see is enforcement.”

The law requires schools to constantly check students’ progress in reading from the time they’re in kindergarten.

Only 45.2 percent of last year’s third-graders passed the reading test. Only 25.5 percent of schools met all state targets for student proficiency, attendance, graduation rate and ACT results.

“Seniors who graduated last year and were not proficient, the race was over for those students, wasn’t it?” Melanie Dubis, a lawyer for the state’s low-wealth school districts, asked Howard.

“Yes,” Howard replied.

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

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