Schools chief blames falling scores on budget cuts

The annual report card for NC's schools shows mixed results for the 2010-11 school year. More students are graduating, but fewer are meeting state and federal standards.

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June Atkinson
Laura Leslie

The annual report card for North Carolina’s public schools unveiled today showed mixed results for the school year that just ended. More students are graduating, but fewer are meeting state and federal standards for reading and math proficiency.

The four-year graduation rate for the high school class that started in 2007 jumped to 77.7%. That’s 3.5% higher than last year’s cohort, and well above the State Board of Education’s target for the year of 76%.

“We are proud we have our highest graduation rate ever,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson at a news conference this morning. “The most important measure of school success is graduation.”

“77.7 percent is not where we want to be, not where we want to end up,” said SBOE Chairman Bill Harrison at this morning’s meeting. “But it certainly is cause for celebration.”

Scores, funding drop

Other numbers in today’s report were less encouraging. State and federal measures show NC student performance has slipped this year.

Only 27.7% of the state’s schools made what’s called “Adequate Yearly Progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind act. That’s not even half of the 58% that made AYP last year.

Education officials say the sharp drop in 2011 AYP results is actually due to tougher criteria put in place this school year. If schools’ performance in 2010 was judged under the new criteria, they said, last year’s AYP results would have been around 28%, too.

But the state’s ABCs criteria did not change, and scores there slipped, too. Only 81.4% of state schools met or exceeded their expected performance on ABC assessments. That’s down from 88% in 2010.

Atkinson called the drop in ABC results a “point of concern.”

“I believe these drops reflect the continuous educational cuts we have had to make over the past three years,” she said, citing larger class sizes, less support for teachers, and less help for students who need it. “Shrinking resources does have an impact.

“But we can’t use our financial times as an excuse to let our schools’ performance slip,” she added.

Atkinson says she’s optimistic that federal “Race to the Top” grant dollars may help patch some of the worst cuts this year. She’s also hoping new diagnostic software implemented last year will help teachers catch reading and math problems during next school year, before students take their next round of tests.

AYP “flawed”

Atkinson also said parents and students shouldn’t overemphasize the AYP results of any given school, calling it a “flawed system” that needs to be fixed.

Under “Adequate Yearly Progress,” each school has a number of individualized “targets” or criteria it has to meet. If school misses just one target, it’s judged as having failed to make AYP, even if it successfully met a dozen other targets. Failing AYP, Atkinson cautioned, “does not indicate that students aren’t making progress.”

Gaps persist

As the test results show, however, some students are progressing more than others. The subgroup of white students in NC public schools met 95% of its AYP targets. But the subgroup of American Indian students met only 70.2% of their targets. African-American students met 71.5% of theirs, and economically disadvantaged students met 74.2% of their targets.

State end-of-grade tests in reading and math given in 3rd through 8th grades show an even larger demographic achievement gap. Among white students, 80.3% scored “proficient” on the EOG tests. Among black students, only 49.5% did. While black students made more progress over the past year than white students did, narrowing the gap by over one percent, the two groups’ scores remain 30.8% apart.

American Indian students scored at 55.8% proficiency on this year’s EOGs, and Hispanic students were at 55.4%. The state average for all groups was 68.4%.

SBOE Chairman Bill Harrison said educators should do more to address the achievement gap, which is one of the issues NCLB was intended to fix. "We’ve got places where we’re successful, we have places where there’s little or no gap. And we need to bring folks together and learn from that.”

“Maybe we need to revisit the work of the 'Closing the Gap' task force” from 10 or 12 years ago,” Harrison added. “I’m certain we haven’t come as far as we wanted to.”

The task force, established by former Gov. Mike Easley in 2002, had as its goal the elimination of the achievement gap by 2010. Ironically, the EOG proficiency gap between black and white students in 2002 was under 30% -- narrower than it is today.


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