State says schools grading system had to change

Judge Howard Manning said educators have the tools they need to ensure students learn to read from kindergarten to third grade.
Judge Howard Manning said educators have the tools they need to ensure students learn to read from kindergarten to third grade.

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. appeared Wednesday to soften his stance on a new state measurement system that benefits students with marginal performance on standardized tests. The judge had previously called the new system, which debuted last year, as “academic double-speak.”

Rebecca Garland, deputy state superintendent for public instruction, testified at a hearing Wednesday that the state Department of Public Instruction made the change so students who fell in a statistical bubble in the margin of passing or not passing the standardized tests would now be considered passing for state purposes.

For years, students were measured in North Carolina on a four-tier scale, with students scoring at the third and fourth tiers considered to be at or above their grade level.

The state board last year adopted the new system, which added a middle level to create a five-tier scale of proficiency. Now, students who score in the third, fourth and fifth tiers are considered passing.

The court hearing Wednesday was part of a long-running court case, known as Leandro, that deals with how well the state is meeting its constitutional mandate to provide a sound, basic education to all children. Manning is charged with overseeing the ongoing education and school quality case.

The judge heavily weighs standardized test results in his evaluation of school performance, and he had previously signaled concern about the new scale.

Garland testified that the changes were the result of new national guidelines for English and math, called Common Core, adopted in 2010 as well as new state-written standards for other courses. It went into use in classrooms statewide in the fall of 2012, and tests were changed to match.

The new approach was more rigorous, Garland said.

In that same period, the legislature also raised the stakes, Garland said. Lawmakers passed Read to Achieve, which would have required that most students pass the third-grade reading test before they could be promoted to fourth grade. A new A-F grading system for public schools became law.

The first batch of test results under the Common Core standards produced low scores. The overall state passing rate for the 2012-13 school year was 44.7 percent. Only about 45 percent of third-graders were considered to be reading at their grade level, which meant thousands of students would have faced summer school.

Garland was blunt Wednesday in her explanation of the change, saying state schools leaders wanted more children to be classified as passing their classes.

“We felt we had to do this,” Garland said.

With the new scale in place for the 2013-14 school year, students in three tiers were considered proficient. The statewide passing rate jumped to 56.3 percent. For third-grade readers, the increase was more significant, with more than 60 percent deemed passing.

In written orders in advance of the hearing, Manning made it clear that he didn’t like the State Board of Education decision that he said made it easier to pass.

Garland testified that the students now scoring at the level 3 under the new measure are at a higher academic level than students who were at level 3 when schools were using the old standards and tests.

Essentially, the new system allowed for some students who were close, but not considered passing in the old way, to now be counted as passing, she said.

After the hearing, Manning said he understood why the state made the change.

“It’s transparent,” he said. “It’s nice to find out why.”

But he said he hadn’t changed his mind about what yardstick he’ll use for the purpose of ensuring students receive an education the law requires. In his order, he said he plans to only consider the top two tiers as passing.

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