- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A changed definition of which children are on-track in their learning progress despite still needing help is part of North Carolina setting higher academic expectations, a top state school official said Wednesday.

The explanation seemed to satisfy Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., who ordered a court hearing to weigh a decision last March by the State Board of Education changing the definition of whether students have learned what’s expected for their grade.

The judge worried the change watered down requirements, but appeared to accept Deputy State Superintendent Rebecca Garland’s explanation that the changed categories are in line with courses that have been made much more difficult.

The hearing is the latest in a series Manning has held over the years to test whether the state’s education bureaucracy and policymakers are living up to their constitutional obligation to give every North Carolina child the opportunity to have a sound, basic education. Manning was named by the state Supreme Court to oversee compliance with its decisions in lawsuits which started in 1995 over school funding in poor parts of the state.

The state school board’s new, five-level measure of student achievement includes a mid-range score that deems tested third-graders as prepared for the next grade level though they may need continuing help from a teacher to perform successfully in fourth grade. That differs from the marker the state Supreme Court set in a decision more than a decade ago as showing children were being prepared for college or a career.

“We’re not going to go backwards. That’s why I got upset about this one,” Howard told Garland. “It’d be nice if somebody would have come to see me and explain what it was instead of this gobbledygook that was going on a year ago.”

The change was adopted because North Carolina schools revised curricula a few years ago in line with standards that were more academically challenging than what came before, Garland said.

“Each generation of students is going to be expected to do more, to achieve more, so you’re constantly going to have to move the standard” higher, she said as Manning agreed.

But when the results for course-ending tests in reading, math, science and other topics for the 2012-13 year were released, fewer than half the students in grade 3 and above scored in the proficient range. At the same time the bar was raised on learning expectations, two new laws were approved that would penalize children and schools for poor student performance, Garland said.

One assigns A-through-F grades to each school beginning next month based mostly on how students performed on standardized tests. The second took effect last year and required third-graders to be able to be proficient readers or risk repeating that year. Projections were that more than half of the state’s 105,000 third-graders were likely to fail to meet the higher reading standard in the first year they were applied, pushing most schools into a failing grade too, Garland said.

So state school officials who had previously classified students as proficient if their test scores were close and they appeared statistically likely to pass the test if given repeat chances formalized it in the passable, middle-ranking, new scale, Garland said.

About 200,000 elementary school children failed to meet the proficiency mark on the old, four-level scale in 2011, said Melanie Dubis, a lawyer representing some of the state’s poorest school districts. About 300,000 third- through eighth-graders were not meeting the new proficient-with-help standard in 2014, she said, citing state data.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.

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