The passing rates on North Carolina’s standardized tests for students went up nearly one percentage point, from 58.3 percent to 59.2 percent, this past school year. That was helped along with better scores in the state’s middle schools. And, the four-year high school graduation rate went up to 86.5 percent from 85.9 percent. In 2006 that rate was 68.3 percent.
All this is good news. And testing is important as a way to ensure students are prepared for higher education. In North Carolina, public school students take reading and math competency tests at the end of third grade through eighth grade, and they take science tests in fifth and eighth grades. High school students take state tests in biology, math and English.
The results of the tests, in addition to giving parents an idea of how their students are doing, are used along with figures about student progress to grade individual schools from A to F. And state officials do boast that the number of A and B schools has gone up and the number getting D’s and F’s has declined.
That’s all fine, but the test scores also show that schools where a larger percentage of students come from lower-income families do not do as well overall on testing as those from more affluent schools. And more minority students tend to be lower income, so there are racial gaps as well.
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It’s important that state officials, who may be rightly pleased by the improved statistics overall, face up to the continuing differences between those more affluent schools and other ones. The difference speaks to the need for the state to invest more in “low-wealth” schools, which has been a virtual command from the courts in the long-running Leandro case, a lawsuit brought by five school districts in 1994. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., in a virtual crusade for low-wealth schools, ruled that every child in North Carolina has a constitutional right to a “sound, basic education.”
North Carolina of course has to stand by that legal obligation, but there is a moral obligation as well to the children from all over North Carolina to provide them with the opportunities they deserve. These disparities in scores don’t necessarily reflect a failure in the low-scoring schools of teachers or principals, but may show that these students need more help at home and more resources devoted to their schools in terms of support personnel (social workers, for example). And the letter grades given to schools are a poor way of determining whether they’re getting the job done.
A low-performing school in a low-wealth area may be bringing some students along better than a simple letter grade would reflect, particularly if that school includes many disadvantaged children. Students who start with many negatives in terms of family income and support and make progress in a year to the point where some of those negatives are overcome may not reflect the level of their progress in a single year of test scores, for example.
As officials and politicians look at these scores, they need to consider, for purposes of policy-making, more than just the grades.