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Audit: Wake Schools Good, But Have Work to Do

The Wake County school system needs to manage its schools better to reach student achievement goals it set, according to an extensive audit released Tuesday.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County school system needs to manage its schools better to improve student achievement, according to an extensive audit released Tuesday.

The 400-page curriculum audit by the Indiana-based education organization Phi Delta Kappa International said the school district has a good plan for success, but isn't executing it well. Random visits to three dozen schools in recent months showed fewer than two-thirds were adequately implementing the plan, the audit said.

The district paid $215,000 for the six-month audit, which it hoped would find areas for improvement because student achievement has plateaued in recent years. The school board had set a goal of having 95 percent of students in the third through 12th grades testing at or above grade level by next year, but Superintendent Del Burns said Tuesday that the goal won't happen.

"Having 95 percent of all students at or above grade level in 2008 is not realistic," he said.

In the 2006-07 school year, 91 percent of the district's students in grades 3 through 8 tested at or above grade level in reading, while 76 percent scored at or above grade level in math. The lower math performance is attributed to the state's changing how it handles math scores, an issue that has bedeviled many districts.

Burns said meeting the 95 percent goal became more difficult in the past year because the state has changed the way it grades end-of-year tests, causing scores to plummet statewide. But he acknowledged that the problems cited in the audit also are hindering the district's success.

In middle school math last year, for example, 88 percent of white students were at or above grade level, compared with 48 percent of African-American students. In the 10th grade, 87 percent of white students performed at grade level, compared with 50 percent of African-American students.

Similar gaps in student achievement extend across gender and income levels – more girls take advanced classes, and more boys are in special education classes – and the auditors determined that the district would never close those gaps at its current rate of progress.

"Having achievement gaps is not acceptable to me, and it's not acceptable in our community," Burns said.

More consistency is needed districtwide, according to the audit. It noted resources are distributed unevenly among schools – different levels of involvement by parent support groups is a main reason for this – and that principals often chart their own courses for their schools.

The district also needs to restructure teacher evaluations, the audit said. Evaluations produce little constructive feedback, making it difficult to use them to improve classroom techniques.

The audit also recommended hiring more male and minority teachers. Eighty-four percent of Wake County's public school teachers are white, and most are women, according to the audit.

The district's long-range building plan was praised in the audit, but the report said the school board needs to gain control over taxing authority, which is now held by the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

Schools are using some strategies to close the student achievement gap, like having teachers work together in teams to help certain students, but Burns said it could take months or years to implement programs to correct problems.

At Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, for example, freshmen are isolated to identify those with potential problems and those with the ability to excel.

"I'm happy that we're beginning this dialogue about something that's often sensitive to talk about," Principal Andre Smith said. "We know we have a good school system – one of the best in the country. Now, we have clear objectives as to what we're doing instructionally."

Twenty-three auditors visited nearly 4,000 classrooms, interviewed 479 people and reviewed 50,000 pages of documents during the audit, officials said. Such curriculum audits usually are performed at low-performing school districts and are designed to highlight problems and areas for improvement.

Fearing that the audit could harm morale in Wake County schools, district administrators plan to meet individually with area principals on Wednesday morning, Burns said.

District officials said they hope to present a plan for change to the school board on Sept. 18.