NC has released 2018-19 school test scores. See how your child’s school did.

Teacher Jeff Maynard, center, works on a reading lesson with one of his third-grade students at Brier Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, NC, on March 13, 2014. The students work in “reading camps” to prepare for end-of-grade tests to comply with with the Read to Achieve law.
Teacher Jeff Maynard, center, works on a reading lesson with one of his third-grade students at Brier Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, NC, on March 13, 2014. The students work in “reading camps” to prepare for end-of-grade tests to comply with with the Read to Achieve law.

North Carolina school test scores improved slightly last school year despite students dealing with new tests and some schools missing weeks of classes due to Hurricane Florence.

Test results released Wednesday show the percentage of schools meeting or exceeding academic growth targets and receiving “A” or “B” school performance grades increased during the 2018-19 school year.

The state’s high school graduation rate of 86.5% was virtually unchanged from the previous year’s 86.3%.

School districts in the Triangle saw similar results in test scores and graduation rates.

“Teachers across the state are working hard to ensure that students learn and achieve,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said in a news release. “We are making changes in Raleigh to help our students and teachers — with less time spent on testing and more time for instruction, getting money out of Raleigh and into classrooms where it belongs, and a regional support system better tailored to support schools.”

In contrast, State Board of Education member J.B. Buxton said Wednesday he’s concerned about the lack of sustained academic progress over the last three years.

“It kind of looks like the state story is we’re stuck in neutral,” Buxton said. “Maybe it’s more like when my kids learned [to drive] stick and there’s a little bit of lurch forward and a little bit of roll back, but in general not a lot of progress.”

Around 73% of the state’s 2,523 public schools met or exceeded their expectations for student progress on state exams.

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Letter grades

Education leaders also highlighted how the percentage of schools earning “A” and “B” grades increased from 35.6% in 2017-18 to 37.3% last school year. The grades are based mainly on the percentage of students passing exams.

On average, high-poverty schools have lower grades than more affluent schools.

Until this year, the state Department of Public Instruction historically reported out a chart showing the correlation between poverty rates and the school performance grades.

A News & Observer analysis showed that 86.5% of the schools where less than 20% of students are low income received an “A” or “B” grade. But 60% of the schools where 80% or more of the students are low income received a “D” or “F” grade.

Supporters say the grades help parents see how schools are doing. But many educators want the letter grades revised or eliminated.

“Reducing the entire educational experience to a single letter grade has always been a futile endeavor,” Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said Wednesday. “The school letter grades released today fail to account for the many factors that contribute to, and greatly inhibit overall student success.”

Under legislation passed this summer, state lawmakers are asking Johnson and the state board to recommend potential changes to how the grades are calculated.

After years of decline, the passing rate on the third-grade reading exam increased from 55.9% to 56.8%. Scores had been dropping despite the state spending at least $150 million since 2012 on the Read To Achieve program.

Johnson had cited the decline as one of the reasons he decided to replace Amplify Education’s mClass program with Istation to test the reading skills of K-3 students. The new contract is now being reviewed by the state Department of Information Technology.

The 57.2% passing rate on state reading exams in grades 3-8 was virtually unchanged from the previous year’s 57.3%.

The passing rate on state math exams in grade 3-8 increased from 56.1% to 58.6%. The passing rate on the end-of-course exams was 56.1% in Math 1 and 46.9% in Math 3.

But officials cautioned against comparing math results to prior years because new exams were used. Schools were unable to release math scores to families until the State Board of Education set the passing scores in August.

Virtual charters get ‘D’s

The new results showed problems for some programs that Republican lawmakers have touted.

The state’s two virtual charter schools, N.C. Cyber Academy and the N.C. Virtual Academy, both received “D” performance grades and since they opened in 2015.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper cited their performance when he vetoed a bill last month lifting the enrollment cap on the virtual charter schools.

Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County ended its first year in the state’s controversial Innovative School District program with an “F” grade, after not meeting academic growth and a drop in the percentage of students passing state exams. Students lost two weeks of school due to Florence.

The Innovative School District allows the state to take over low-performing schools and to turn them over to other groups to run, such as charter-school operators. The school’s principal, the program’s superintendent and the head of the company running Southside Ashpole are all new this school year.

Under state law, four more schools have to be added to the district for the 2020-21 school year. A list of 12 schools being considered for takeover (none in the Triangle) was released Wednesday. A final recommendation will be made to the state board by Oct. 15.

In the past, some communities have fought state takeover. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow the state board to not pick any schools for takeover this year.

Durham, Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Wake schools

Two years ago, Durham Public Schools successfully fought a proposal to add Lakewood Elementary School to the Innovative School District. Lakewood’s grade improved from an “F” to a “C,” which Durham school board Chairman Mike Lee said shows that state leaders were wrong for considering takeover of the school.

“What they should get is Durham serves all of our kids and the succeeding of all of our kids,” Lee said in an interview Wednesday. “No matter where you’re coming from, no matter what your background is, no matter what you’re learning style is, Durham Public Schools reaches our kids where they are. And that can be seen through the data.”

Districtwide, Durham had more schools with “A” and “B” grades and fewer with an “”F” grade. More schools exceeded growth targets on exams and the graduation rate increased to 82,9%,

In the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, 94.4% of schools met or exceeded growth, up from 77.8% in 2017-18, the district reported in a news release Thursday. The same percentage of schools scored an “A” or “B,” up from 88.8%.

The CHCCS graduation rate was 90.9%, up from 90.3% the previous year.

Wake County school leaders noted how more schools met growth targets and passing rates are up at several grade levels in reading and science tests. In addition, the graduation rate rose for the seventh year in a row, reaching 89.8%. Wake has an ambitious goal of graduating 95% of students by 2020.

“The collective striving of our students and staff toward that lofty goal has moved us farther than ever before in the right direction,” Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore said in a statement Wednesday. “We are particularly proud of the steady gains made by students of color, English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

“None of us will rest until every student crosses that stage, well prepared for whatever the future holds.”

Staff writer Trent Brown contributed to this report.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.