Education

NC students improve on state exams, and more are graduating from high school

Durant Road Middle School teacher Alyssa Jackson helps seventh-graders Jayon Whitley, left, and Joe Abi-Najm during a lesson on statistics analyzing NCAA mens basketball seeds at the Raleigh school on March 16, 2017. Gains in middle school performance helped increase passing rates statewide.
Durant Road Middle School teacher Alyssa Jackson helps seventh-graders Jayon Whitley, left, and Joe Abi-Najm during a lesson on statistics analyzing NCAA mens basketball seeds at the Raleigh school on March 16, 2017. Gains in middle school performance helped increase passing rates statewide. tlong@newsobserver.com

More North Carolina students are passing state exams and graduating from high school, although large gaps still remain between racial groups and for schools with a lot of low-income students.

The passing rates on the state’s standardized tests rose from 58.3 percent to 59.2 percent this past school year. The gain was fueled by increases in the passing rate at the state’s middle schools.

The state’s four-year high school graduation rate also continued its upward climb, rising from 85.9 percent to 86.5 percent. The graduation rate was at 68.3 percent in 2006 when the state for the first time began giving realistic figures on how many were getting their diplomas.

The test and graduation results released Thursday drew praise from state leaders who also acknowledged that more needs to be done.

“It’s great news that the top-line trends are in the right direction,” said State Superintendent Mark Johnson. “We can all be proud, for instance, that most schools meet or exceed growth.

“But deeper into the data, the results show stubborn concerns that call out for innovative approaches.”

Every year, parents, school leaders and politicians eagerly await the release of results showing how well the state’s public schools have fared.

Public school students take standardized reading and math tests at the end of third through eighth grades, and science tests in fifth and eighth grades. High school students take state tests in biology, Math I and English II.

These tests, along with calculations of student growth, are combined to create school performance grades of A-F. Over time, the number of schools receiving A and B grades has gone up while the number getting D and F grades has declined.

 
NC school performance grades

About 36 percent of the state’s schools got an A or B grade this past school year, and 23 percent got a D or F.

The state’s two virtual schools – N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy – continued to struggle. They received D grades in their second year of operation, as they did the prior year.

Johnson said it’s going to take time for the virtual schools to work, but he praised them for giving opportunities to students. Critics, though, have said the virtual schools are a waste of taxpayer money.

The letter grades, which were mandated by state lawmakers, also continue to reflect the disparity between schools based on the income levels of their students.

Pitt County Early College High School was the only school in the state to get an A where at least 80 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. In contrast, no school where less than 40 percent of students are low income received an F.

Nearly 93 percent of the schools with a D or F had enrollments where at least 50 percent of their students were from low-income families.

“There is no disputing the fact that students in poverty, schools in poverty, face many challenges that we have to address,” Johnson said.

Test scores make up 80 percent of grades for elementary and middle schools. Student growth on tests makes up 20 percent of their grades. High schools use standardized test scores, the percentage of students who pass Math III and other factors to determine performance grades.

Efforts to make growth a higher factor in the grades have passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

State lawmakers also drew the ire Thursday of several state board members as they reviewed data showing the number of low-performing schools statewide has increased to 505. State board members who approved a plan Thursday to meet legislative requirements to cut $3.2 million from the budget of the state Department of Public Instruction said there’s not enough money given to support public education.

“It’s just really a shame and a disgrace in my opinion that we continue to not get the support,” said state board member Reginald Kenan.

The grading system will change next year due to changes state lawmakers made to have the letter grades comply with new requirements in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The State Board of Education adopted a new plan Thursday to submit to the U.S. Department of Education to see if it complies with Every Student Succeeds.

Performance results in the Triangle were mixed.

The Wake County school system also saw its graduation rate rise, going from 87.1 percent to 88.5 percent. But the percentage of Wake students passing state exams dropped from 67.9 percent to 67.2 percent.

The passing rate remained 76.6 percent in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. It increased from 62.2 percent to 63.4 percent in Orange County.

The passing rate rose from 44.9 percent to 46.4 percent in Durham but dropped from 59.2 percent to 59 percent in Johnston County.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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