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Raising the bar: Tougher curriculum + tougher testing = lower scores ahead

fr stateboardSchools are bracing for a precipitous drop in student test scores coming down the pike next month — the result of a new, more rigorous curriculum and testing standards implemented statewide last year.


“We are not surprised. These are very rigorous content standards. The bar has been raised,” said Tammy Howard, director of accountability with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh.

On average, 65 percent of third- through eighth-grade students were proficient in reading for the 2011-2012 school year. That will drop to about 45 percent when the new test scores for 2012-2013 are released. In math, the percent proficient will drop from 77 percent to 43 percent, on average for grades third- through eighth-graders.

At an N.C. Board of Education meeting held in Cullowhee this month, some members feared the lower scores would be a tough pill to swallow. Schools clearly have their work cut out for them to bring students in line with new academic standards.

“What we hear unilaterally is kids need more rigorous standards to be successful in today’s world,” said Tricia Willoughby, a former teacher and one-time state superintendent who sits on the N.C. school board. 

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But Willoughby emphasized the scores should not be seen as an indictment on teachers but instead a wake-up call to the state.

“I am a teacher, and it is devastating to see your students aren’t where they need to be,” Willoughby said. “I want to be very clear when these scores come out, there are a lot of other things we can do in society. Kids aren’t where they need to be, and we all have a responsibility around this.”

Normally, test scores from the last school year would have been released by now. But the scores were delayed this year as the N.C. school board grappled with exactly what to make of them.

Namely, the state school board had to set the sliding scale — or the benchmark — that determines whether a student passed. How many test questions does a student have to get right to be considered proficient?

When the curriculum and tests got harder last year, students didn’t get as many questions right. So in one fell swoop, fewer students would be deemed “proficient” if the benchmark stayed the same.

“We are moving toward higher expectations not only in North Carolina but across the nation,” said Dr. Angela Quick, deputy chief academic officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “Anytime you change to more rigorous standards, you are going to see a dip until you reach an equilibrium.”

The state has implemented harder tests twice in the past decade, and each time there was a drop in scores the first year out of the gate. But then scores rebounded as teachers and students rose to the occasion of the new standards.

That trend is happening again, with the introduction of a new, more rigorous curriculum last year known as the Common Core, now used by 45 states.

 “It was quite a big task to switch to Common Core with increased rigor and expectations,” Howard said. “What we previously expected from a grade 8 student we have now moved down to a grade 6 student. We are resetting the bar, but we are confident there will be improvement.”

But the state school board faced a conundrum for this year: should it shift the sliding scale downward so students could miss more questions than in the past yet still be deemed proficient?

It would certainly soften the blow that would otherwise come with a sudden drop in scores.

The N.C. Board of Education ultimately decided at its October meeting not to go that route. It instead opted to bite the bullet and accept the baseline of lower scores. The state school board took its meeting on the road this month, convening in Jackson County on the campus of the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee rather than in Raleigh.


Bring it on

Local school officials said they are up to the challenge of the stricter curriculum and harder tests that go with it.

“You always want to set the bar higher so you can have high expectations. Every time you set the bar higher, if you make it, you set it higher again,” said Dan Murray, Jackson County Schools Superintendent.

Murray said school systems around the state have been waiting to see what the state school board would do.

“I was very pleased that the state board decided to just put them out there,” Murray said. “If you twist numbers to fit, then what do you have? We want accurate measures of where our children are, and then let us have goals to meet. If you mess with it, how do you objectively do it?”

Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent in Haywood County, agreed.

“In all honesty, this is what we should do. Every few years, we should say, ‘Let’s make it a little tougher.’ If you make it a little tougher, people aren’t going to score as well the first year or two,” Nolte said.

But that’s not all bad, he said.

“I think a lot of people get more nervous about this and make more of an issue about it than they really should,” he added.

After all, every school will be in the same boat when the new scores come out, Nolte said.

Haywood County Schools have excellent test scores compared to the state average, and Nolte doesn’t expect that to change — in a relative sense.

 “Everyone’s score is going to be lower. The fact that they are all going down levels the playing field,” he said.


Whose job is it?

Several state school board members lamented the onus that test scores place on teachers.

“What does that say to the teacher that only 45 percent of the class is proficient?” said A.L. Collins, a state school board member and attorney in Winston-Salem.

Howard said the test scores should be seen as a tool by schools and teachers.

“To take that number and say ‘Half my students are doing well, half are not. Oh no, that’s awful!’ — that’s a natural reaction,” Howard said. 

But instead, test scores should be used to help schools figure out which students need help and in what areas, Howard said.

“The hope is that student performance will increase and students will do better,” she said.

How much better remains to be seen — and therein lies the rub for some school board members.

“What are we going to do different next year? I put myself in that teacher’s position. They say ‘I did the best I could do. I tried to deliver a curriculum that met the standards, and the best I could do was deliver 45 percent. What in the world am I going to do next year?’” Collins said.

Olivia Oxendine, a former teacher and principal on the state school board, said she was devastated last month when she got a sneak peak at the dramatic drop in test scores in the wake of tougher standards. Teachers can’t fix it alone.

“We need to sit down with teachers and principals and roll up our sleeves and say, ‘Where do we begin fixing this,” Oxendine said. “Our students are going to have to do a better job, and our teachers are going to have to do a better job strategizing around this.”

The raw scores — the percentage of students deemed “ proficient” for their grade level — are just part of the testing picture, Howard said.

Testing also measures academic progress of each student year over year.

“We don’t want a system that is based only on proficiency. We also want a system that recognizes growth,” Howard said. “We have to separate those two.”

Teachers shouldn’t be evaluated based on test scores in a vacuum.

“Are they taking students where they are when they enter and moving them forward by the end of the year?” Quick asked.



June Atkinson, the N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction, reminded the school board that this year is a one of transition.

“There are no consequences to our teachers, parents, schools or communities,” Atkinson said.

That could change next year, however.

The N.C. General Assembly passed a new law that will assign each school a letter grade based on its students’ test scores. The new grading system will be put in place next year — and the new tougher testing could pull down a school’s grade.

Murray is distressed by that prospect.

“If a child gets on a school bus and goes to a ‘C’ school — even though I don’t feel it is a ‘C’ school and the teachers don’t feel like it is a ‘C’ school — but when they get on that school bus, I don’t want them thinking they are going to a mediocre school,” Murray said.

Murray said grading schools based on raw test scores penalizes schools with a large percentage of low-income or at-risk students. Meanwhile, schools in wealthier, more affluent communities will fare better — and that sends the wrong message, Murray said.

“It is not a fair way to do it,” Murray said. “They really need to relook at it.”

The move by state lawmakers to impose grades on schools will coincide with the roll out of vouchers. Parents could come to a false conclusion that public schools aren’t performing, Murray said. Those with the financial means to do so could chose to apply state-issued vouchers toward the tuition cost at a private school.

“It will be political fodder. People who don’t like public education will say the schools are failing,” Nolte agreed.

Murray said he hopes the majority of parents will understand, however.

In Haywood County, letters will go home with parents next month when student test scores come out. It will explain to parents that lower scores are expected as a result of tougher standards, said Teresa Cook, Haywood schools testing coordinator.

Along with the student’s raw test score, parents can also see how their child did compared to the state average.

“If your student was in the 90th percentile before, the percentile score should still be about the same,” Cook said.

State School Board Member Gregory Alcorn questioned whether testing is a be-all, end-all, or is reflective of the larger goal.

“How will we know whether this is increasing the number of students going to college or marketplace satisfaction that shows North Carolina is the place to go for companies looking for career ready applicants?” Alcorn asked.


Testing by the numbers

The advent of a new more difficult curriculum and more difficult testing to go with it means fewer students are now considered proficient for their grade level.

For the 2011-2012 school year, state average:

• 65 percent of third- through eighth-grade students were proficient in reading for their grade level.

• 77 percent of third- through eighth-grade students were proficient in math for their grade level.

For the 2012-2013 school year, state average:

• 45 percent of third- through eighth-grade students were proficient in reading for their grade level.

• 43 percent of third- through eighth-grade students were proficient in math for their grade level.

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