Fall test scores show learning remotely was a struggle for North Carolina’s school children

Scores on state tests taken in the fall show that students across North Carolina have not fared well academically during a year when many of them learned remotely.

On the beginning-of-grade third grade reading test, 58.2% of students across the state scored Level 1, which is the lowest level. Three quarters of third graders aren’t proficient.

High schools returned to school buildings in December and January to take end-of-course tests in Math 1 and Math 1, biology and English II. More than half of test takers were not proficient on Math 1, Math 3 or biology exams. Only 41.4 percent were proficient on the English II exam.

The test results are the first statewide look at how students are performing academically amid the COVID-19 pandemic, forced schools to close for in-person instruction. Many of the state’s 1.5 million students have received remote instruction this year.

NC Department of Public Instruction officials shared the scores with the State Board of Education (SBE) on Wednesday.

Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at DPI, cautioned the board to not read too much into the scores, particularly reading scores for third graders.

“We would not expect students to do well on that beginning-of-grade reading assessment,” Howard said. “We expect them to grow and to do better when they go through grade 3, then take the end-of-grade, and then we would expect their performance to improve.”

Howard explained that the state does not usually publish fall testing data. That changed this year, she said, to give district leaders information to compare and to help guide school leaders in their decision-making.

“The point of this data is to provide support and to target resources,” Howard said.

She said test scores for the current school year can never be used to compare scores from previous or future years.

“This year is just so very, very different,” Howard said.

Declining test scores usually means a district has not done everything possible to improve academic outcomes, Howard said.

“But in the context of this year, I think everything is being done and this information kind of grounds us to where we are, to have conversations about where we need to go in providing support and services,” Howard said.

High school teachers and students often say that math is one of the toughest subjects to teach and to learn in a remote setting.

The test scores for Math 1 show that to be true. Sixty-four percent of students were not proficient on the exam this school year, The report shows 48.2% were not proficient the previous school year. There was a sizeable dip in Math 3 scores as well. Fifty-four percent of students were not proficient versus 44.5% the previous school year.

Across exams, Black and Hispanic students already struggling to close an intractable achievement gap, fell even further behind.

For example, 82.7 percent of Black students were not proficient on the Math 1 exam. Last year, 66.9 % were not proficient. For, Hispanics, 74.6% were not proficient this compared to 55% a year ago.

White students performed better than their Black and Hispanic peers but their scores on the exam fell off precipitously. The report shows 54.9% of white students not proficient on Math 1 exams. The previous school year, 36.4% were not proficient.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that 83.6% of the 175,559 high school students — 151,542 students — took end-of-course exams.

“I’m not sure what you expected, but it was much higher than we expected,” Howard told the board.

Participation on the third-grade reading exam was not robust at 67.7%, but still respectable, Howard said.

State board member James Ford asked what parents should take from DPI’s report.

Howard said the exams remain a valid instrument to measure academic progress.

“What has shifted, is the opportunity to learn,” Howard said. “Everyone is doing an exceptional job of making that possible as much as they can with remote instruction and face-to-face instruction. We all know the context of this school year.”

State lawmakers and school leaders agree that many of the state’s K-12 students must spend the summer addressing learning loss caused by a year of remote learning.

The House has approved House Bill 82 requiring school districts to offer a summer learning and enrichment program to help students who have struggled academically during the pandemic.

If HB 82 becomes law, students in grades K-12 would receive “in-person instruction” on specific subjects and “enrichment activities” to offset learning loss and other negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts would prioritize at-risk students.

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