Halifax County reading scores remain low despite NC intervention

lbonner@newsobserver.comNovember 14, 2013 

— A Superior Court hearing Thursday on the quality of education in North Carolina focused on the continuing struggles of low-performing schools, with special attention on Halifax County.

In 2009, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ordered an expansive state intervention in Halifax, a rural, low-wealth county near the Virginia border where failure rates on state tests were high. Manning is charged with monitoring state progress in meeting the constitutional mandate to offer students a sound basic education and holds a public status review each year.

He did not issue a ruling Thursday but expressed disappointment with test results in Halifax, where reading scores remain low.

“It’s from the bottom to the middle bottom,” Manning said. “These children are not reading at grade level.”

Third-grade reading is critical this year because many students who aren’t on track will be at risk of repeating the grade. Only about 19 percent of Halifax third-graders are proficient readers, compared with about 45 percent statewide.

The hearing put a spotlight on the tension between the low performance on standardized tests and school growth, a measure of how much students learn year by year.

In Halifax and statewide, some schools with the lowest passing rates on tests also had students learning at least a year’s worth of material or more in a school year.

Of 11 public schools in Halifax, all but one had student knowledge advance at least one year, said Pat Ashley, director of the state Department of Public Instruction’s office of district and school transformation. There’s no growth measurement for one school.

“We really have a much better growth pattern than we’ve ever seen,” she said.

Ashley’s office has used $40 million of the state’s $400 million federal Race to the Top grant to help the bottom 5 percent of the state’s public schools and lowest-performing districts. The federal money provides half her office’s funds, Ashley said.

The grant runs out next summer, but the state can ask for an extension to spend money it has left over.

One year’s growth doesn’t make up for years when students weren’t learning at the proper pace, said Melanie Dubis, a lawyer representing poor counties.

She pointed to one Halifax elementary school where students lost ground each school year for four years before learning at the predicted pace for one year.

“One year of meeting growth is not going to make up for four years where they didn’t get a year’s worth of growth for a year’s worth of school,” Dubis said. “They still haven’t made up ground.”

Halifax administrators who watched the hearing said afterward that the district has focused on getting this year’s third-graders to master reading.

The district sponsored a four-week summer school for rising third-graders that about 80 percent attended, said Tyrana Battle, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The district also has after-school programs and special reading instructors who work with both teachers and students, administrators said.

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

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