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N.C. schools' test scores drop

Fewer students passed the state’s end-of-grade reading tests, partly due to increased standards, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Fewer students passed the state’s end-of-grade reading tests, partly due to increased standards, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's ABCs/AYP report released Thursday.

On the 2008 reading and mathematics assessments, 52.6 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level on both general tests given in grades 3-8.

Reading performance ranged from 52.5 percent proficient at the seventh grade to 60.9 percent proficient for fourth and sixth grades. Math performance ranged from 68.6 percent proficient at seventh grade to 74.8 percent proficient for third grade.

In the previous year, 92 percent of fifth graders passed the reading exam.

This year, however, students faced the first comprehensive increase in reading proficiency standards since the ABCs model began in 1996.

"It would be so easy for us to coast along, to simply enjoy the higher percentages of success that are reflected in the scores of a lower standard, but it would not be the right thing for us to do," said Howard Lee, chairman of the State Board of Education.

"You should view this year simply as a baseline."

Panels of practicing teachers formed the new, tougher test standards this summer, and the education board approved them in October. Students are required to get more answers right to be deemed proficient in the subject.

In 2007-2008 school year, 31 percent (748 schools) met the standards for Adequate Yearly Progress. Sixty-nine percent of schools (1,664 schools) did not make AYP.

In the previous school year, 44.8 percent of schools made AYP, while 52.8 percent did not.

Of the 101 schools deemed low-performing, Wake County had two, Durham County had nine and Cumberland County had six on the list. Wake had four of the state's 29 Honor Schools of Excellence.

Allen Ellzey, president of Salem Middle School in Apex, said that earning the state's highest honor required lots of preparation for the new standards. The school launched after-school tutoring sessions for language arts and math, with a dedicated teacher for each grade level, and Ellzey credited teachers for helping students get over the new, higher hurdle.

"Our teachers share best practices, they look at data, and it's a combination of all those things," she said.

More than 500 schools entered Title I School Improvement or continued in School Improvement, triggering sanctions that may include public school choice, supplemental educational services for qualified students and other actions.

Twenty-two schools exited School Improvement based on their 2007-08 performance. Under the ABCs model, schools are given specific designations based on their performance.

Parents and the public should not be discouraged by the drop in numbers, state officials said, because it was unlikely students would be able to meet new standards in the first year.

"We have to keep raising the bar and demanding more of our students," Gov. Mike Easley said. "When they all start scoring 90 percent, the standards have to be raised. That is how you make improvement."

June Atkinson, superintendent of public instruction, compared the greater challenges students had in passing the tests to the bigger difficulties Mark Spitz would have in equaling his 1972 record of seven Olympic gold medals in today's swimming world.

"The key is to remember that our students are continuing to learn. They have not let up, and teachers have not either," Atkinson said.

Higher-education officials praised the move to raise standards, saying that students would ultimately learn more and be better equipped to compete in a global economy.

"The State Board's commitment to rigorous standards for students will lead to increasing numbers of North Carolina students finding success at our community colleges and universities," University of North Carolina System President Erskine Bowles and North Carolina Community College System President Scott Ralls said in a joint statement.

"This is the right agenda for our students and our state."

The North Carolina Business Committee for Education and Chamber of Commerce echoed those ideas.

"If the public schools truly are to be a pipeline to high-skill jobs in our state, then the state's standards must reflect the increased competitiveness of today's global economy," the groups said in a joint statement. "The State Board ... is committed to ensuring that all children are prepared to graduate globally competitive for work and further education."