Scores on year-end tests soared in Johnston County this past school year, partly because the state made its tests easier to pass.
According to data released Thursday by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 58 percent of Johnston students passed their year-end tests in 2014, compared to 43.3 percent last year and 56.3 percent across the state this year.
In 2012-13, just 16.3 percent of Johnston schools met or exceeded state expectations for academic growth. This year, 82.9 percent of schools did so.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Johnston high school students on track to graduate in four years climbed to 85.4 percent in 2013-15, up 2.9 percentage points from the year before.
The exponential increase in Johnston’s passing rate stems largely from a new grading scale that makes it easier to pass the state’s end-of-grade tests. Approved by the state legislature in March, the new scale comes on the heels of last year's disappointing test scores.
Still, Johnston County’s chief academic officer, Dr. Rodney Peterson, lauded the higher test-passing and graduation rates while acknowledging room for improvement.
“The results are a product of a lot of hard work with stakeholder groups, but we know we have areas to address as well,” he said.
Peterson pointed, for example, to the graduation rate of 85.4 percent. “We always want to be 100 percent,” he said. “If we have even one student who’s not doing well, then we have an area for improvement.”
Peterson said Johnston schools did an internal assessment in which it compared this year’s test scores to last year’s while factoring out this year’s lowering passing threshold. Even then, students here made gains across the board, he said.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction made no such comparison, and Johnston has not released its comparison publicly. That makes it hard for parents to judge their schools from last year to this year, said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, a right-leaning think tank.
“I think the DPI has a public information challenge,” he said. “It has a tough time explaining what these numbers mean, not just in Johnston County but statewide.
“What I worry about the most is that parents are going to be confused about what each [test score] represents, as well as the fact that you can’t compare with last year.”
To judge how the district is doing, Peterson encouraged parents to look at how many schools met or exceeded academic-growth expectations this year. In Johnston County, 34 schools met or exceeded expectations, while just seven, including Clayton High School, Cooper Elementary School and Smithfield-Selma High School, fell short.
North Carolina tests students in grades 3-8 in reading and math, students in grades 5 and 8 in science and high school students in biology, English and math.
A score of 3, 4 or 5 is considered passing, and students who score 4 or 5 are considered well prepared.
“I’m proud of the staff, the administrators, the teachers and the students,” Peterson said. “The increase in our graduation rate and increase in student achievement is because of all our hard work, even with the new expectations.”