Fewer schools met North Carolina’s overall targets for academic improvement in the most recent year, according to new test results, even as the high school graduation rate jumped to what state officials called a historic high.
The data released Wednesday also show that student performance on the state standardized tests has remained largely static from a year ago.
The new results are an effort to assess schools on two big measures – how students perform on certain tests and the rates at which students learn from year to year.
The testing and growth results are used to generate A-F letter grades for schools. Wednesday is the second time the grades have been assigned, and they cover the 2014-15 academic year.
Each school’s letter grade is calculated from student testing scores, which account for 80 percent of the letter grade, and the measured growth of students. The growth component – which tracks improvement of students – makes up 20 percent of each school’s grade.
The new results do not show overall gains in either test results or student growth.
The state introduced new education standards and tests in 2012-13. State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said Wednesday that it takes about five or six years after a switch to see “a notable difference.”
Overall, 56.6 percent of students passed statewide exams in reading, math and science. That is about the same as the 56.3 percent who passed those exams in the prior school year.
Performance on some reading tests slipped slightly.
In the most recent year, 59 percent of third-grade students passed their state reading test. Last year, 60.2 percent passed.
That grade level has special attention from lawmakers, who in 2013 put in place a new law, called Read to Achieve, that aims to have every student in the state reading well by the end of third grade. The law calls for schools to hold back some third-graders who struggle to read.
Results from the fourth-grade reading tests showed the biggest gains, moving more than 3 percentage points to 58.8 percent passing.
Passing rates on reading tests, which means students earned at least a 3 on a 5-point scale, improved only for fourth- and sixth-grade students.
The state reports scores on end-of-grade reading and math tests for third through eighth grades.
It reports scores on end-of-grade science tests for fifth and eighth grades.
High school students take the national ACT and ACT WorkKeys as well as state end-of-course tests in biology, Math I and English II.
The new results show some improvement on the third- through eighth-grade end-of-grade math tests, and in the fifth- and eighth- grade science tests.
But passing rates declined on the biology, English II and Math I end-of-course tests.
Schools are graded on a 15-point scale, so a score of 85 and above is an A, for example. For the first time, schools can earn an A-plus if they don’t have significant achievement or graduation gaps between student groups.
According to a News & Observer analysis, 72 percent of schools received a C or better. (If the state had moved to a 10-point scale as it originally intended, 70 percent of the state’s schools would have received D’s or F’s.)
As in the first year, the results show a strong correlation between the wealth of student families and school grades, according to the N&O analysis. About 88 percent of the D’s and F’s were at schools where at least 3 out of 5 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
Atkinson said the state could see significant gains if it would increase enrollment for at-risk children in preschool programs and find ways to ensure struggling students spend more time in school. She credited the Read to Achieve law for providing reading camps for third-graders, but she said those efforts should be extended down through kindergarten.
Senate leader Phil Berger, the Eden Republican who championed Read to Achieve, said there is likely “some merit” to extending reading camps to rising second- and third-graders.
“I would agree that some kids probably do need some additional help,” he said. That is not an issue addressed in the current state budget negotiations.
Berger said the state is beginning to collect information about kindergarten students’ participation in prekindergarten, “so we can hopefully begin to measure more accurately the benefits that come from preschool and identify best practices.”
Critics of Republican fiscal and education policies used the scores Wednesday to talk about a desire for more sustained efforts to increase per pupil spending, average teacher salaries and per pupil spending on textbooks.
Progress NC Action, a liberal advocacy group, launched a website on school spending called www.howfarwehavefallen.com.
“It’s clear to me that the Republican-led legislature and Gov. McCrory are dis-investing in our public schools,” Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, said before the news conference. “We’ve seen no return to the investments that were made prior to the 2008 recession.”
Berger said school funding levels are appropriate but that some money should be redirected. He spoke again of the Senate Republicans’ preference for shifting money used to pay for teacher assistants to instead hire teachers in order to reduce class sizes in lower grades.
As lower test scores were reported over the past two years, state officials emphasized school growth, a measure of how much students learn from year to year.
But this year, growth has slipped to 72.3 percent of schools meeting or exceeding their growth target. Last year, 74.7 percent of schools met or exceeded growth goals.
State and local education leaders focused instead Wednesday on the state’s rising high school graduation rate. It is now at 85.4 percent, according to the new data. It was at 68.3 percent in 2006.
In Wake County, school leaders emphasized its graduation rate, now at 86.1 percent. They spoke at Knightdale High School, where the graduation rate has risen to 88.8 percent.
Wake school leaders gave scant mention to how the percentage of schools meeting or exceeding growth targets had dropped – from 82 percent to 61 percent. The percentage of Wake students passing state exams went up slightly from 66.6 percent to 66.7 percent.
“As a district, our proficiency scores are not obviously where we want them to be,” said Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill. “While some of our schools made solid gains in academic growth, (that’s) not true for all schools, and we recognize that.”
The state’s pattern of mixed test results was matched among other Triangle school districts.
In Chapel Hill-Carrboro, which is regarded as one of the state’s top school systems, the passing rate declined from 77.1 percent to 76.9 percent. Slight dips also took place in Durham and Orange counties, where the passing rate fell, respectively, to 44 percent and 59.3 percent.
The passing rate went up slightly in Johnston County to 58.7 percent.