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New State Math Scoring Subtracts From Schools' Success

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A change in the way North Carolina scores state math tests added up to significantly lower passing rates.

Statewide, only 64 percent of students in grades 3-8 tested at grade level. In the past, 80 to 90 percent of students were deemed to be performing at grade level in schools statewide.

This year, passing rates ranged from 68.7 percent among third-graders to 61.2 percent among eighth-graders.

  • Statewide Test Scores

    About 74 percent of Wake County students passed this year's math tests, down from 90 percent a year ago. In Durham County, the impact of the scoring change was even more dramatic -- an 82 percent passing rate last year dropped to 53 percent this year. Orange County had a 24 point drop, from 88 percent to 64 percent.

    The state Board of Education now requires students to get more answers correct on the math tests to be considered passing. It's the biggest change to the test in a decade, and the board approved the move after results on national tests were much lower for students than state tests.

    "I almost think about it as qualifying to run in the Olympic trials," says Lou Fabrizio, the director of accountability services at the Department of Public Instruction. "Years ago, you could run a race at a certain pace. Now, that time doesn't even get you invited to the Olympic trials."

    The scoring change raises the bar, but it also endangers some schools that struggle to meet the federal No Child Left Behind standard that requires students in every demographic group to perform at a certain level.

    Last year, 970 schools across the state missed the federal standard, while 1,317 schools made it.

    The scoring change delayed the release of the scores from July until Wednesday, and the release was almost pushed back another week.

    After announcing Wednesday morning that the scores wouldn't be released until Nov. 9, DPI officials quickly made an about-face and put the scores online.

    Officials had said they wanted to hold off on releasing the scores because State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee hadn't reviewed them.

    Lee said the data is complicated and he doesn't feel comfortable officially releasing the results until he has reviewed all of it.

    "I have to be absolutely sure, as chair, when I take a matter before my board that I can indeed understand the implications of what we're doing and be able to explain that both internally and externally," he said.

    Education officials have said scores on state math exams were expected to be much lower than the scores of the past, and some critics suggested the delay in their release was politically motivated because of controversial school bond referendums in Wake County and Winston-Salem.

    "The fact that the release has been moved until after the election suggests that these scores are being used in a political game so the public can remain confident in their public school system," Terry Stoopes of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, said of the initial decision to delay. "The citizens are teetering when it comes to their public schools. Something small like test scores could send them over the edge."

    Lee denied any hidden agenda in the move, saying he had recently undergone knee surgery and hadn't had time to get to his office to look at the data.

    "This has nothing to do with politics or the election," Lee said. "I don't think the elections will be decided purely on the basis of what this data reflects. It will be decided on other campaign matters and issues."


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