Testing troubles: Hundreds of NC schools fail to test enough students

Posted February 22, 2016

— When students in Randolph County Schools don't show up to take state tests, school leaders pounce.

Teachers and assistant principals send letters home and call parents. If that doesn't work, school resource officers go to the students' houses, knock on their doors and drive them to school, if necessary. That kind of response is why Randolph County had some of the highest test participation rates in the state last year.

But not all North Carolina public schools can say the same.

Last year, more than 300 public schools across the state – about 13 percent – failed to test enough students, causing North Carolina to receive a warning letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

If North Carolina schools do not get at least 95 percent of students to take state exams this school year, federal officials warned, "a range of enforcement actions" can be taken, including the loss of some federal money for public schools. North Carolina is one of 13 states to receive a warning letter from federal officials. More states may be warned in the coming months as testing data trickles in.

In her response to federal officials, State Superintendent June Atkinson acknowledged the problem and said schools will face consequences for missing participation requirements.

But it's not the first time North Carolina has failed to test enough students. In the past 12 years, the state has achieved 95 percent participation on all exams only once – more than a decade ago, in 2004, according to data released by the state.

WRAL News requested North Carolina's testing data to see which schools were cited last year for not testing enough students. Of the 115 school districts in the state, most had at least one school that missed the mark. Seventeen other schools, including charter schools, were also cited.

Some districts had dozens of schools that were cited, including Wake County, which failed to test enough students at more than 30 schools, including 23 of its 27 of high schools. A Wake schools spokesman acknowledged the problem, saying "very few of our high schools hit the 95 percent mark."

While some of the schools that were cited tested 90 percent or more of their students, putting them close to the 95 percent requirement, others weren't even close.

WRAL News contacted multiple principals to ask about their schools' test participation problems and how they are working to improve. Many referred questions to their school system's public relations staff, some of whom did not respond.

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Schools explain low test participation

Of the 300-plus schools that failed to test enough students last year, the state has labeled nearly 90 of those as "focus schools," meaning they have missed the mark three years in a row.

Wake County is home to 16 focus schools, including Knightdale High, which had the lowest test participation rates of all the schools in the district last year.

When Knightdale issued its ACT WorkKeys test to students studying career and technical education last year, 125 students were supposed to take the exam. More than 40 students didn't show up. The school struggled to get students to take other tests as well, including end-of-course exams and the ACT College Admissions test.

North Carolina's 'focus schools'

Of the more than 300 schools that failed to test enough students last year, the state has deemed nearly 90 of those as "focus schools." That means they have failed to test enough students in the same subgroup (by race, economic status, etc.) for three years in a row. The map shows which schools were named focus schools in 2014-15. Zoom in on the map and click the pins to reveal the schools.

Graphic by Kelly Hinchcliffe

Matt Dees, a spokesman for the Wake County Public School System, said there are several reasons why Knightdale and dozens of other schools in the district failed to meet test participation goals. According to Dees:

  • If a student doesn’t show up for a test, there are not many days to get them in for a make-up due to narrow test-taking windows.
  • End-of-course tests account for 20 percent of a student’s grade. If a student is struggling in class, he or she may decide not to take it if they are already in a position where they will have to recover the credit or retake the course anyway.
  • Knightdale is a smaller school, which means a few students can make up a large percentage of the student body.

While Knightdale's participation on the ACT WorkKeys was 67 percent, it wasn't the lowest in the state.

Commonwealth High, a charter school in Charlotte, posted the lowest numbers. Less than 5 percent of its students took end-of-course exams last year, according to the state's data.

Commonwealth is not a typical school. It opened in 2014, making it one of the newer charter schools in the state, and it serves older students, ages 16 to 21, who are at risk of dropping out.

WRAL News contacted Principal Sydney Culver for comment, and she referred questions to Tom Hanley, who was the school's principal last school year.

Hanley said the participation rates are not accurate because the school enrolled more than 64 percent of its students after the first semester last school year, meaning those students would have taken the tests after June 30 – the state's deadline for test taking.

"We have been in communication with NCDPI regarding this issue," Hanley said. "They understand the issue and are working with us to identify solutions to this reporting issue."

Gray Stone Day, a charter school in Misenheimer in Stanly County, also had some of the lowest participation rates in the state, with just 30 percent participation on EOC tests. Gray Stone Day's chief administrative officer Helen Nance said her school's participation rates were also incorrect due to the school having "an unusual year."

"Our high school went to trimesters, and our schedule did not fit with what the state uses for traditional high school schedules, so the reporting appears that we did not meet participation rates," Nance wrote. "However, on our trimesters all students had completed testing by November. This is the only time in our history this has occurred."

State education officials said they were not aware of that situation happening anywhere else in the state.

Students with disabilities, English language learners cited

When schools fail to test enough students, it "denies educators and parents critical information about how the student is doing and how traditionally underserved populations are doing, including low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners," said Raymonde Charles, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

In its warning letter to North Carolina, the U.S. Department of Education said it was especially concerned about two groups of students not being tested enough – students with disabilities and English language learners.

Statewide, both groups of students missed the 95-percent testing target for the ACT College Admissions Assessment, which is given to all 11th graders. English language learners were also not tested enough on the state's 10th grade math test and the ACT WorkKeys test, which is given to students concentrating on career and technical education.

Tammy Howard, director of accountability services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said the state is "missing so few targets, but the ones we're missing we definitely need to look at."

Howard said the state typically has more problems with test participation at the high school level than in the lower grades. "Elementary and middle school students typically go to school when they're supposed to. At high schools, it's a little more difficult," she said.

North Carolina is one of 34 states that require all students to take state tests. If a student is present in the classroom on test day and refuses to take the exam, he or she will receive the lowest score possible but will still be counted as participating.

Despite the participation problems schools are facing, state department of education officials say North Carolina has made improvements in some areas, including on reading and science tests.

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North Carolina public schools increased test participation percentages in the following areas from 2013-14 to 2014-15.

Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction

When schools don't meet testing requirements, they must send letters home to parents and, in some cases, write intensive intervention plans with details about how they plan to improve.

One way the state has tried to help schools struggling with test participation is to let them hear from districts that are excelling in that area. Randolph County, one of the few school systems in the state that tested 95 percent or more of its students in all schools, was featured in the latest webinar the state Department of Public Instruction hosted in December.

"We have a dedicated staff of teachers and assistant principals and SROs (school resource officers), and if students do not show up on the day of testing, they go out and pick them up," Sharon Johnson, Randolph County Schools' director of testing and accountability, said in the webinar. "We do everything we can to get our students in so that we can have our 95 percent testing fulfilled."


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  • Rebecca Caldwell Feb 23, 2016
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    View quoted thread

    Why comment on an article you apparently didn't read? This isn't about the number of tests given; it's about the number of students who participate in each test.

  • Hamilton Bean Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    After 27 years in a NC classroom, I have said many times that it is testing that drives education. At one point, every student in the NC school systems took 38 state mandated tests between the 3rd and 12th grades. Any one of which could fail a student. And yet the system wants to try and convince the public that testing does NOT drive the education system. Teachers are graded by their students results on these tests. Wanna guess what the teachers are teaching????

  • Roland Kandalbar Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    this federal requirement is ridiculously onerous. How come our representatives in Congress aren't fixing this madness?

  • Jim Bradshaw Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    It is not just the total number of students tested. It is 95% of all sub groups. Sub groups include English as a second language students, LD students, AD, students, ADHD students, students based on race, gender, students with a myriad of learning styles, etc. If a school has 7 students in a sub group and even one student fails to show up for state exams, then that sub group can not have a minimum of 95% tested. It is all a numbers game.

  • Roy Jones Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    I'm sure its the schools fault for the kids not going to school being respectful.

  • Roy Hinkley Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    I think some of what you read are reports of the anti-testing movement. The reality is that all state and federally mandated tests are required, not voluntary. But how do you force a kid to take a test? Choosing not to take a test doesn't always affect the kid (in NC the EOC is 20% of their grade, but if they are going to fail the class anyway, why bother testing?). In other states they may not have the 20% rule, so how do you make that kid test? Even if you get the kid to sit down, will they take the test seriously? The biggest impact of not testing enough kids is that the schools can lose federal funding.

  • Walter Honeycutt Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    The testing involves any testing. The 2 issues are this- the short sighted policy makers and the parents. If little Johnny is not in school on a school day, he is truant. Charge mom and dad. Then little Johnny will be there to test. Teachers should not be accountable for what mom and dad can't do.

  • Sam Adams Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    Hopefully someone can clear this up for me, as I might be confusing two totally different assessment's. Are these tests and common core assessments one and the same? If they are the same, is student participation voluntary? I remember seeing stories in other states of students not taking these assessments because they are 100% voluntary, but the local school boards did not want students to know this. Even threatening to suspend students that were spreading the word that these assessments were 100% voluntary.

    Hopefully someone can shed some light on this for me. Thanks

  • Pam Snyder Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    I'm not sure where they are looking at for not enough testing...... my elementary child has tests all the time! I'm glad they cut the amount of tests last year. The "reading portfolio" was continuous tests. My son began to hate school! The amount of tests and homework for him, in 5th grade is more than my advanced high schooler! I understand testing but not to the point they begin to actually get diagnosed anxiety and depression. Testing doesn't really show their readiness to pass in my opinion. Mine tests awful a lot of the time but is doing well. Tests just freak him out.

  • Josh Jenkins Feb 22, 2016
    user avatar

    The story doesn't tell the whole picture. A single student can count in multiple categories. If a student who counts in four categories skips his exam, the school loses his participation in multiple areas of reported accountability. The biggest reason high schools more often fail to meet the testing requirements is because if a student is going to fail the course regardless of the exam grade, there is no motivation to sit through the exam. Also, the ACT is given to all juniors regardless of intent to attend college. For many high school kids, they don't see the point of sitting through a test that has no meaning or benefit for them.