State test scores show students still working to master new standards

Posted November 7, 2013

— 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 School districts are also distributing information relevant to their own districts. 

2012-13 Test results for individual schools

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."


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  • Plenty Coups Nov 8, 2013

    quad-"Not much has changed from the time this new teacher was in school working to become a teacher to the time he left teaching."

    Not quite. The teacher I was talking about was hired in 2006 or 2007. That was a time when teachers had a salary schedule that actually went up every year. His health care was less expensive and he had the opportunity to get tenure. He also had the chance to get paid more for a Master's degree. He also received merit pay bonuses for good test scores.

    " He also I mean its pretty well documented teachers dont get paid well, why did he not know this before?"

    It's not the fact that teachers don't get paid well, its the fact that what they did get paid was changed for the worse AFTER he got into teaching.

  • T-Man Nov 8, 2013

    'What I do know is if I want a raise, I find a way to work smarter so my performance (Teaching to learn rather to test)and results of the performance (IE test scores) would warrant a raise.'

    Good point. My wife left the teaching profession last year. Her students' test scores were at the very top in the county, yet she was still being paid as a first year teacher, with no raise in her near future. After 5 years, she had enough with the constant lack of respect and pay. Good teachers are NOT rewarded - they are expected to continuously do more and more until they either quit or become so overwhelmed they stop caring.

  • Plenty Coups Nov 8, 2013

    "The low pay is a serious factor with most teachers. Just ask them." Plenty Coups

    quad-"I bet if you ask most folks they will tell you their pay is too low"

    Right, but I'm not the one pretending its a non-issue or ignoring the fact that NC teacher pay is near the bottom of the nation simply because "my team" is the one in charge and they aren't addressing it and are actually making it worse. If NC teacher pay hadn't of been frozen all these years and if the GOP didn't go after benefits like Master's pay and tenure and if NC teacher pay exceeded the national average then I'd agree that there were other pressing issues that were causing good teachers to leave the profession other than the pay and benefits.

  • earnyourownway Nov 8, 2013

    just got through looking at test scores for wake county and durham .schools with poor scores have high percentage of free or reduced lunches. i guess best way to fix this is eliminate free lunches.

  • quadrathlete Nov 8, 2013

    The low pay is a serious factor with most teachers. Just ask them.
    Plenty Coups

    I bet if you ask most folks they will tell you their pay is too low

  • Sally1023 Nov 8, 2013

    There is a new report the OECP put out that study show this generation will be the first generation in the history of the country to be less educated than the previous generation. You cans say what you will but until this country, and in particular, this state put thier upmost attention in to educating our children the country and State will deminish it's greatest asset, the next generation. We need to respect and reward our teachers because they are the linchpen that holds this nation together.

  • BlahBlahBlahBlahBlah Nov 8, 2013

    RTT money is being spent on accountability models..
    Pass a test....get a good grade...that is what you do all day long in the Public Schools of NC
    But try to get kids to add a column of numbers without taking out a $100 calculator..Most can not do this..

  • BlahBlahBlahBlahBlah Nov 8, 2013

    In my last comment I meant your children are being Over-tested

  • BlahBlahBlahBlahBlah Nov 8, 2013

    This is really sad.???????????????????
    What is sad is that your children are being overly tested...not taught..Bottom Line-PERIOD

  • BlahBlahBlahBlahBlah Nov 8, 2013

    How much money did the State of NC spend on this accountability nonsense website?
    Would have helped if you had taken some of the 34 students out of my child's math class and hired a couple of more teachers..
    The way it is
    Go to one school....10 students in a class
    Go to another school...34 students in the same class
    Go to another school...everything you need provided
    Go to another school.."Sorry we do not have anymore paper and we can not afford to replace your technology until 2015. Go to one school ....Workshops way in advance for specific standards.. Go to another school...Bull workshops full of nothing.