Feds like state progress in Race to the Top

Posted by Lynn Bonner on March 19, 2014 

The U.S. Department of Education has given a generally positive report on the state’s use of the federal Race to the Top grant. A summary of state accomplishments using the multi-year $400 million grant said North Carolina has “continued to demonstrate its leadership in education reform.”

The federal Education Department issues annual assessments for the 12 grant winners from 2010.

The report praised North Carolina for its professional development programs for teacher and principals and for its efforts in technology. Graduation rates are up significantly, the report said. In addition, it noted that 55 of the 109 schools that were getting extra support because of the grant have improved, moving them from the bottom 5 percent of lowest achieving schools.

The federal summary did not mention that students have not hit proficiency targets on national standardized tests, and that some achievement gaps have widened.

Adam Levinson, the state’s Race to the Top director, said it’s unrealistic to think the grant spending would lead to broad and immediate student testing gains.

“There’s always a lag before you see the effects,” he said. “We have to be somewhat satisfied with the interim measures for now. We won’t be able to judge the outcome of all the measures. Those we’ll see several years down the road.”

In a conference call with reporters, Ann Whalen, who oversees Race to the Top for the federal Education Department, said North Carolina students’ scores on national tests have increased significantly in two subject areas and that the state took the “courageous step to realign its assessments” so they reflect whether students are ready for college and careers.

The state changed its tests last year to align them with the Common Core standards in English and math, and initially set scores so failure rates were high. At its meeting this month, a divided State Board of Education changed the scoring so more students will pass this year.

“Over the last few years, we have seen Race to the Top states build on the systems and framework that they have been developing to lay the foundation for long-term, sustainable progress,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

The federal department last month approved the state’s request for a “no cost extension” that allows it to continue spending for a year after the official grant period was to end. The state is behind in developing its computer technologies, and the extension allows the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to finish that work and push some unspent money toward priority projects.

The summary also notes the fumble with the state Final Exams, given to courses and subjects that don’t have an end-of-grade or end-of-course test.

The Final Exam results are going to be used as part of teacher evaluations. But dozens of new tests have led to complaints that the state requires too many. The state “refined implementation” for this year in response to complaints, the federal report said.

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