The sobering consequences of more rigorous classroom standards became clear Thursday when the state Board of Education revealed a dramatic drop in performance by students, schools and districts on standardized tests.
The overall passing rate in Johnston County was 43.3. It was 55.8 percent in neighboring Wake County and 44.7 percent statewide.
Districts have 30 days to send individual student scores to parents.
Compared with 2012 results, passing rates statewide 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.
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“Our decreases align with what we felt would happen,” said Rodney Peterson, chief academic officer for Johnston County schools.
Peterson said school leaders expected a drop this large because the whole curriculum changed – not just the testing standards. In the past, when only testing standards changed, the county had seen a drop of 13 to 15 percentage points, he said.
The results are based on standardized end-of-grade tests in reading and math in grades 3-8, 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, director of accountability services for the state Department of Public Instruction’s director. “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 statewide 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.”
Of Johnston County’s 42 schools, only three exceeded growth expectations: Wilson’s Mills Elementary, Cleveland Middle and Princeton High. Another 14 schools met growth expectations; 25 did not.
Tracey Peedin-Jones, spokeswoman for Johnston County schools, said it was too early to know why the three schools exceeded growth expectations.
‘Beneficial’ in long run
State Superintendent June Atkinson opened her news conference Thursday 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 gaps widen
The state used results of past tests to see whether students were ready to move to the next grade, education officials say. The new tests have a different goal – to see whether schools are preparing students 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.
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.
Staff writer Paula Seligson contributed to this report.