Raleigh News & Observer
Some officials dispute data; scores could rise Needier students offer challenge to schools
By TODD SILBERMAN, Staff Writer
Overall achievement remained largely unchanged for the second consecutive year in North Carolina schools, indicating that the education system has reached a plateau.
The annual ABCs report on school performance, released Thursday without the fanfare of past years, shows about 81 percent of the state’s third- through eighth-graders passing exams in reading and math.
The passing rate for elementary and middle school students has held steady since jumping from about 75 percent to about 81 percent in 2002-03. Gaps in achievement between white and minority students also showed little change.
Education leaders said the flat performance reflects the difficulty that schools are facing in reaching students with the greatest learning needs. As a result, the kind of robust gains common several years ago will be tougher to repeat.
"We’ve gotten to the point where it’s going to be harder," said Jane Norwood, vice chairwoman of the State Board of Education. "There’s a lot more that we’re going to have to do to reach those students."
The flat trend in student performance should concern schools and education leaders, said John Dornan, president of the N.C. Public School Forum.
"I hope we don’t get into a complacent attitude that 80 percent is good enough," Dornan said. "The two key questions are how do we get qualified, competent teachers into schools where they’re least likely to be and how do we provide more time and effort with kids who aren’t proficient."
The ABCs scores from this past school year also show that schools also were less likely to meet yearly improvement standards.
In all, 69 percent of the state’s 2,242 public schools achieved their goals either for expected or strong progress. That’s the smallest percentage since 2000-01, when 60 percent met the standard.
The ABCs accountability system rewards schools that make improvement. Teachers in schools that meet those standards earn bonus pay: $750 in schools that make expected gains; $1,500 in schools with greater than expected progress, or high growth.
Education officials estimate the bonuses for last year will cost $94 million.
Fewer schools would have earned bonus pay without an 11th- hour change that the state Board of Education approved in the way school improvement was measured. The board dropped sixth- grade reading from the calculation for middle schools because of worries about the scoring formula’s accuracy.
The change resulted in 47 percent of middle schools making expected or strong improvement, instead of the 22 percent that would have done so if the factor for sixth-grade reading had been included.
Fewer schools overall achieved high growth last year — 26 percent, or 579 schools.
Four high schools were branded as low-performing for failing to make sufficient gains and for posting a passing rate of less than 50 percent. The schools — two in Guilford County and two in Halifax County — will be assigned assistance teams for the coming school year to help boost student performance.
In addition, 44 other high schools with passing rates of less than 60 percent are slated to get help from new "turnaround teams" announced by Gov. Mike Easley this week. Durham’s Hillside and Southern high schools are among that group.
Statewide performance under the federal No Child Left Behind accountability law also was released Thursday, matching projections that fewer schools would meet those standards because of higher expectations. The law requires schools to achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
North Carolina schools achieving "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law dropped to 56 percent in 2004-05 from 71 percent the year before. State testing officials attributed the decline to the first of the incremental steps up the ladder to full proficiency.
For elementary and middle schools, the expected passing rate for reading was raised from 68.9 percent to 76.7 percent; in math, from 74.6 percent to 81 percent.
To meet the standard for adequate yearly progress, schools must demonstrate that various demographic subgroups of students achieve the passing standards.
Among the state’s 1,153 schools that receive federal Title I funds for low-income students, 64 percent achieved adequate yearly progress. Title I schools that miss the federal targets two years in a row in the same subject are required to allow students to transfer to a higher performing school. After three years, they’re required to offer students independent tutoring.
For the coming year, about 180 Title I schools across the state will be required to provide the transfer option or tutoring.
Staff writer Todd Silberman can be reached at 829-4531 or [email protected]