Nov. 7, 2013

Higher standards mask steady growth  

Despite sharply lower passing rates on new state exams, Wake County students made clear academic progress last year, according to data released by state educators today.

While the decline in test scores masked the underlying progress of students, the growth offered encouragement for what lies ahead in the new era of student accountability introduced today.

 “Given everything that students and teachers have been through the past year – changes in curriculum, changes in approach, new exams – this is very encouraging,” said Wake school board member Bill Fletcher.

Focusing on growth was part of Wake County’s message today as it introduced the public to the results of more difficult exams aligned with new Common Core standards. Growth refers to how much a student learns during the year regardless of how far above or below grade level that student ultimately scores on state tests.

The chart below, for example, shows how many schools in Wake County met their growth goals in English and language arts classes. The growth was calculated using software from SAS known as EVAAS.


Growth measures are important because they show students are making progress even if they aren’t meeting the higher proficiency goals expected this year.

Based only on proficiency, many of today’s results don’t offer much encouragement. As a whole, the district’s passing rate was 56 percent compared to about 45 percent statewide.

Passing rates fell below 50 percent in roughly 60 Wake County schools with some rates falling below 30 percent. Only a small handful of schools in Wake topped 75 percent and none were above 90 percent.

But proficiency rates only measure whether students scores at certain levels. It’s easy to manipulate those rates by simply increasing or decreasing the number of correct answers needed to pass the state-mandated exams.  In past years, for example, North Carolina was often accused of setting its proficiency standards too low.

Under the new Common Core exams, both the difficulty of questions and the required number of correct answers increased – hence the drop in passing rates. At the same time, many students made obvious progress even if they failed to clear the higher bar.

That prompted school board members to take turns praising teachers with an occasional shot at state leaders for rolling out a new accountability program without more classroom preparation.

“Our teachers were the one bright spot,” said outgoing school board member John Tedesco. “I can’t thank them enough.”

The push toward higher standards

North Carolina is one of several states that decided to push ahead immediately with higher standards as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The primary goal of Common Core, at least at a high level, is to create a single set of tougher classroom standards throughout the country. It was launched by the nation’s governors and top educators in 2010 and now involves 45 states.

How schools reach the standards is a local decision, which means each state retains full control over its curriculum. But simply memorizing content to pass exams is no longer an option. Common Core standards require that students demonstrate an ability to apply their new-found classroom knowledge.

State and local educators say they are confident students and teachers will respond to the higher standards with higher achievement levels. They are basing that assertion on previous changes to the state testing program that saw test scores drop whenever standards increased. Each time, schools passing rates eventually bounced back.

But the drop this time is much steeper, which is expected to create a backlash among parents who weren’t aware the changes were coming and those who simply don’t agree with the approach of Common Core.

Unequal effects

The groups most affected are those who were barely above the old standards that defined grade level. But the families most likely to be startled are those attending schools where 95 percent of students routinely scored above grade level.

Brad McMillen of the school district’s data and accountability department used the following charts to explain the effects to school board members this week.

The chart on the left is an example of a school where 90 percent of the students were considered at grade level based on the old standards. The chart on the right shows the passing rate for the same distribution of students held to higher standards.

But as the following chart shows, that effect is magnified for schools that posted lower passing rates under the old standard. If a school had a passing rate of 75 percent under the old standard, for example, moving that standard up – or to the right as shown on the chart below – affects a larger percentage of kids under the fatter part curve.

School leaders have been anticipating this drop for almost three years, which is when North Carolina agreed to participate in Common Core. But the reality of higher standards is hitting home today. Anticipating numerous questions, Wake school officials posted a special web page that addresses questions. Links from the state Department of Public Instruction that lead to individual school scores can be found here


Child’s first eight years called foundation for life 

A new study that tracked 13,000 children from kindergarten to middle school affirms what many teachers and parents have always known – a child’s standing in third grade plays a huge role in their ultimate academic and social success.

The findings in the report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation include a call for more investment in early childhood, better support of new parents and more programs that focus on transitions to elementary school.

“Policymakers at the federal, state and local levels should look to the decades of evidence on best practices in early childhood fields as they advance their legislative efforts,” the report concludes.
In addition to the obvious social benefit, the report suggests that money spent on high-quality early childhood programs produces a 7 to 10 percent return on investment through more productivity later in life and a reduced need on social services.

The problem is far more acute among children in poor families, although the study suggests only half of all middle-income students studied could demonstrate the cognitive skills expected of them in third grade. The figure for low-income students was 19 percent.

The data presented in the report shows 54 percent of North Carolina’s children younger than eight live in low-income households. Of that group, more than 70 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds do not attend preschool programs.

The study is not a prediction of any child’s success because thousands of students succeed despite poor odds coming out of third grade. But it more costly and difficult to do so, the study concludes.

The findings also echo recent local data from the Wake schools showing that dropout rates in the country are highly correlated to third grade readings skills.



...Gov. Pat McCrory convened a Teacher Advisory Committee this week one day after hundreds of educators throughout the state protested recent cuts to education. The protests came in the form of a teacher “walk-in” outside of school hours after an idea to walk-out started getting some attention a few weeks ago.  Educators throughout the state say low pay, loss of tenure, larger class sizes, vouchers and the elimination of a pay increase for those with a master’s degree have significantly damaged teacher moral this year. McCrory said teacher concerns are legitimate, but he offered little detail about how the committee might address them during the next year.

... Wake’s new Career and Technical Education high school scheduled to open next year in partnership with Wake Technical Community College will be named in recognition of the late Vernon Malone. Malone, who died in 2009, was the first chair of the newly-merged Wake County Board of Education in 1976, served on the Wake County Board of Commissioners and served as a member of the N.C. Senate. He also was a member of the Partnership’s Board of Trustees for many years and is the namesake of the Partnership Friend of Education award.

…Student report cards typically don’t get a lot of attention unless they belong to your child and happen to come up short of expectations. But a new report card being issued by Wake schools this year is so different it has prompted a parent guide and a video explaining the changes. The card provide parents with far more detail about a student’s progress and tries to align grades with the higher expectations of the new Common Core standards. It is getting mixed reviews from parents and school board members.

...For those who like to keep track of such things, this edition of In Context marks the fifth year anniversary of its publication. Along with a few other things, the first edition promised to “highlight local school issues with an eye toward educating readers about the importance of current events.”  We trust it has offered some insight and context along the way. Feel free to tell us what you think. You won’t be the first or hopefully the last. 





Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues and serving as a strong advocate for student achievement and world-class academic standards. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local businesses. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications, at tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org or visit our website at www.wakeedpartnership.org.