NC public schools: student gains slim, graduation rate up

More children are graduating from North Carolina public schools, but only about a third of the 1.6 million students are on track to soak in the knowledge they'll need for the rest of their lives, data released Wednesday show.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — More children are graduating from North Carolina public schools, but only about a third of the 1.6 million students are on track to soak in the knowledge they'll need for the rest of their lives, data released Wednesday show.

About 85 percent of students who entered high school finished in four years, a graduation rate school officials praised as the highest in state history. In 2006, 68 percent graduated, State Board of Education data showed.

On reading and math tests, a little more than four out of 10 students showed that their learning was on pace for their grade level. About a third are on pace for college and career readiness. Both results have improved slightly in recent years.

The figures come three years after the state school board raised learning standards to correspond to real-world needs, state schools Superintendent June Atkinson said. It's likely to take five or six years before scores show a notable improvement as older students are pressed to catch up with what they didn't learn when they were younger, she said.

"We have to take these as a snapshot rather than a movie (about) the quality of our students," Atkinson said. "All of us have had bad pictures that caught us at the wrong time."

She said the scores don't take into account the art, science and other skills students are gaining, and she noted that officials predicted dropping scores when the new standards were adopted.

But while Atkinson took a glass half-full view of the results, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a member of the State Board of Education, looked at it as half-empty.

"Everybody is constructively discontent with numbers like that," Forest said. "Nobody is happy about it."

Gov. Pat McCrory was more circumspect.

"While the gains in high school graduation are encouraging, we still have a lot of structural improvements and reform we need to achieve in order for our students to get the education they deserve to fulfill their potential," McCrory said in a statement. "That improvement will not come during a single year. It will come with long-term planning, commitment and hard work."

For the second year, schools themselves were graded. Seventy-two percent earned a C grade or better. Schools again were graded on a curve easier than students must meet, with an 85 out of 100 still earning an A.

School grades again showed a strong link with whether most students come from families in poverty. All but two of the schools landing F's and 95 percent of those drawing D's had a majority of students receiving free or discounted lunch. More than 80 percent of the schools collecting A's had less than half of their students in poverty.

"That’s where our greatest challenge is in North Carolina are those impoverished districts and schools, places that are below 50 percent poverty," Forest said. "If you start off in kindergarten and first grade and never had a book in your house, you never read a book, you never had anybody read to you, you're automatically perhaps years behind."

Charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded but have fewer rules than traditional public schools, showed both better and worse performance. The 142 charter schools measured were twice as likely to earn A's or F's than traditional public schools.

Atkinson recommended three big legislative steps to legislators who are already struggling to craft a state budget that's two months overdue.

Atkinson said test scores would see a big jump if lawmakers spent more on preschool to prepare poor children, changed the academic calendar which now mandates by law a 10-week summer break for most schools, and expanded summer reading camps now offered to third-graders to include kindergarten through second grade.

"Unless we address those," she said, "we will continue to struggle, especially at the elementary level, to get students reading at grade level."

Atkinson, an elected Democrat, stayed away from debates among Republican legislative leaders over overall spending and teacher funding.

But Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, tied the poor reaults directly to state funding of K-12 education.

"The school letter grades released today are another stark reminder that the resources our students need to succeed have continually been disregarded," Ellis said in a statement. "In a surplus budget year, lawmakers have an opportunity to improve the lives of our students by investing in public education. Instead of going through an exercise to point out which schools have wealth and which have high poverty, we should focus on keeping teacher assistants in the classroom, professional pay for all educators to keep and attract the best and modern textbooks and technology. We can’t risk losing a generation of students.”

Forest, a Republican, also serves as president of the state Senate, but he wouldn't say whether he was urging senators to spend more on education.

Schools are trying to bridge some of the opportunity gaps facing poor school districts with video and digital lessons that put good teachers and challenging lessons in more schools, Forest said.


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