State test scores show students still working to master new standards
Posted November 7, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — Only a third of North Carolina students in third through eighth grades met new state standards for math and reading, according to test results released Thursday.
But state educators said the lower numbers are a reflection of tougher academic standards meant to help students achieve more by graduation.
"The proficiency ratings are significantly lower across the board, but this is no surprise, nor should it be of alarm to you," State Superintendent June Atkinson said. "This is simply a new way of looking at proficiency that will, in the long run, mean that our students are much better prepared for college and the workplace."
Statewide, some 44.7 percent of students met testing standards, with overall performance lifted in a few key areas such as more than 59 percent of eighth graders passing their science tests.
An executive summary of the report given to state school board members Thursday showed that more than 71 percent of schools throughout the state were meeting benchmarks for growth, defined as how much students learn from one year to the next. The eye-grabbing numbers have to do with how well students did on tests measuring their proficiency in math, reading, English and science.
Wake County public schools Superintendent Jim Merrill says students must do more than just remember what they learned.
"Now our students are expected to apply that knowledge and solve problems and create solutions," he said.
More detailed information on how students in particular school districts and schools performed is available at http://www.ncaccountabilitymodel.org. School districts are also distributing information relevant to their own districts.
The new tests show how well students understand material they're required to learn under the new Common Core standards, which are more rigorous than the standards they replaced.
In an interview earlier this week, Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer with North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction, explained that the old tests merely measured whether students had learned enough to keep up in the next grade. The new tests are designed to determine whether students have mastered particular concepts, and that material, she said, is much more rigorous than before.
For example, under the old standards, students were required to master all of algebra I before they left high school. The new standard requires graduates to master algebra II. So, the minimum requirements for students in all grades have moved up to ensure they'll be ready to tackle the new, harder material in high school.
"To say scores are moving up or down is kind of inaccurate," said Matthew Chingos, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy and an expert on testing.
The new Common Core tests, he said, can't be reliably compared with the older tests. Parents and taxpayers, he said, would have a much better idea of how students are grappling with the new standards after test results from the end of this current academic year come back. Comparing those two sets of tests, he said, will show how effectively teachers are giving instruction in the new material and how quickly students are learning it.
"These are entirely news standards. We don't know what normal is," said Larry Niles, president of the Wake County chapter of the of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Parent Ray Scott says higher standards are good, but he is looking for the schools to "teach what the child needs."
"Make it something the child can use and develop and continue to grow – that is what we're interested in," he said.
Low scores not unexpected
This isn't the first time a change in testing has led to a change in how students perform on statewide tests. In 2006, for example, new ABC standards led to a drop of 18 percentage points.
Garland likened this to a baseball player who gets fewer hits after moving from the minor leagues to the major leagues, where he's measured against stiffer competition. She said students in middle and high school have been "working to fill the gaps" of material that they would have encountered in lower grades had they been taught to the new Common Core curriculum throughout their K-12 careers.
Diane Villwock, executive director of testing and program evaluation for Chapel Hill-Carborro schools echoed that sentiment, saying the new tests represented a "sharply higher" standard.
"Historically, North Carolina has seen sharp drops in performance with new standards and a subsequent return to previously high levels," she said.
North Carolina's experience is similar to those in other states. When New York first tested students on Common Core material, 31 percent of third- through eighth-graders were proficient in math and reading. In Kentucky, 48 percent of students were proficient in reading, and 40 percent were proficient in math.
"What that is is a political problem," said Chingos.
Policy makers and parents are likely to react badly to scores that suggest student performance may have dropped off. "In reality, it's not about kids in North Carolina knowing more or less than they did," he said.
And just as North Carolina test scores bounced back after the 2006 change in standards, test scores will begin to climb again.
Experts suggest that climb may be slower, however, because Common Core standards are a steeper academic mountain. At the same time, North Carolina schools and students are facing new challenges related to the dragging economy and changes in school funding.
Results closer to national standards
When students bring home their individual results, parents may be particularly interested in how their child did relatively to other students in their school system and the state. Many students may see raw scores that show they did not perform as well as they did in the previous year, but they still performed relatively well when compared with other students in their same grade.
"It's important to see the stories behind the data," said Michael Harris, a social studies teacher at Phillips Middle School in the Chapel Hill-Carborro system. "We are in the midst of a shift in the way we approach teaching and learning, so a drop in numbers doesn't necessarily mean a drop in progress."
The new tests do have the advantage of being more comparable to other nationally administered tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, or NAEP, given to fourth- and eighth-graders, and the ACT, a test of college readiness that all North Carolina juniors take.
New NAEP scores out today show North Carolina students' performance holding steady when compared with their peer's performance two years ago.
For example, NAEP scores show that among North Carolina eighth-graders, 24 percent of students scored Below Basic, 43 percent at Basic, 29 percent at Proficient and 4 percent at the Advanced level. Those scores are roughly on par with national averages.
"There is a clear value in having standards that are comparable across the state and against other states," Chingos said.
As students adapt to the new Common Core material and begin scoring better on state tests, it's likely that their scores on national tests will rise. That's important, Garland said, because they will be competing with students from other states and nations who are also mastering harder material to meet the demands of a changing economy. That's particularly true of math scores, which show North Carolina students are facing a bigger challenge in adapting to the new material.
"The world has changed," Garland said. "And now industry, because of technology that's infused in all kind of industry, as well as community colleges, have upped the ante of what students need to know....If students in the rest of the world can do these math standards, I'm convinced North Carolina students can do these math standards."