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North Carolina test scores show gains but remain below pre-pandemic levels

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@CharMeckSchools Twitter
Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh greets students as they return to J.M. Alexander Middle School this week.

A year of in-person learning brought some gains in reading and math for North Carolina’s students, but a report released this morning shows proficiency remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

For instance, not quite 50% of students in grades 3-8 earned grade-level math scores. That’s up from 40% in 2021, but below the 2019 proficiency level of 59%.

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Layna Hong
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WFAE
A little less than half of students in grades 3-8 earned grade-level math scores, which is up from 40% in 2021, but below the 2019 proficiency level of 59%.

Third-grade reading proficiency is considered a milestone that signals success or struggles for the future. Last year just over 46% of third-graders earned a grade-level reading score. That’s up from 34% the previous year , but it’s nowhere near the 57% proficiency level in 2019.

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Layna Hong
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WFAE
Third-grade reading proficiency is considered a milestone that signals success or struggles for the future. For 2022, North Carolina students in grades 3-8 scored a little under 50%.

Those patterns were similar for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and surrounding districts, and for Black, white, Hispanic, Asian and economically disadvantaged students across the state and in those districts.

Education officials had cautioned that the past school year wasn’t comparable to pre-pandemic years. While all districts opened schools last August, many also offered remote options for families that didn’t feel comfortable exposing their children to COVID-19. And absences spiked for students and staff during surges.

"As we review this year’s data let’s keep in mind that we are comparing a completely normal school year with the '21-'22 data that is reflective of a very abnormal three-year period," state school board member Jill Camnitz said, introducing the report.

Michael Maher, head of the state Office of Learning Recovery, reminded the state board that his research team has calculated that students regressed by more than a year in some subjects during remote and hybrid classes.

"As a result, I cautioned that this would be a multi-year recovery process. We have talked about four years," he said.

Huge racial disparities remain, with more than 70% of white and Asian students statewide proficient in reading, compared with 32% for Black students and 35.5% for Hispanic students. In math, statewide proficiency for grades 3-8 is 82% for Asian students, 64% for white students, 40% for Hispanic students and 30% for Black students.

CMS continues to face challenges

CMS, which spent most of 2020-21 in remote learning, saw bigger losses that year than nearby districts that brought students back sooner. In 2022 the district’s Black, Hispanic and low-income students, who took the biggest hit during remote learning, saw math gains that exceeded state averages. But a comparison with 2019 scores show those CMS students still have more ground to cover to get back to where they were before the disruption.

For instance: In math, 58% of CMS Black third-graders were proficient three years ago. That was higher than 10 other districts in the Charlotte area.

But in 2020-21, the percent of Black CMS third graders who were proficient in math dropped by 35 percentage points. That was by far the largest drop in the region.

During the 2021-2022 school year, third graders did better than the class before them, but still far below the pre-pandemic class. Forty-one percent of Black CMS third-graders last year are considered proficient in math.

Those students – who just started the fourth grade – finished their first grade year in virtual school during the start of the pandemic. They spent much/most of their second grade year in online school. They attended in-person school for all of third grade.

In a Thursday afternoon new conference, Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said the first semester of last school year was so disrupted that staff and students were mostly focused on readjusting to in-person education.

"I really believe we moved the dial on student outcomes in truly a half year," he said, "because I think the first part of the year was trying to get everybody normalized — supporting the teachers, supporting the students and the families to get back to school and back into the rigors."

A surge in low-performing labels

The state posted detailed breakdowns of results for state reading, math and science exams given in elementary and middle school, as well as high school graduation rates, ACT college readiness results and end-of-course scores for math, English and biology classes.

SAS, a Cary-based analytics company, uses that data to calculate whether schools met, exceeded or fell short of expected progress for their students, regardless of where those students started the school year. The growth measure is designed to give credit to schools that helped students make gains even if they arrived well below grade level — and to ensure that schools with high-performing students are helping them grow as well.

School performance grades are based 80% on proficiency on exams and 20% on growth. It’s a formula that has drawn bipartisan criticism for putting too much weight on proficiency, which is linked to the advantages or disadvantages students bring from home. Top grades tend to go to low-poverty schools serving mostly white and Asian students, or diverse magnet and charter schools with programs that attract motivated students.

The drop in proficiency brought a downward shift in grades. Only 6% of schools got an A this year, compared with 8% in 2019. And the percent of schools earning D's and F's rose from 22% to 42%.

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NC Department of Public Instruction

Alan Duncan, vice chair of the state Board of Education, worried that the low grades will demoralize educators who have worked hard during a demanding stretch.

"For anyone who seeks to criticize educators based on the release of this data, you are wrong," he said "That’s not right. You should not be saying that."

Under state law, schools are rated low performing if they get a D or F, unless they exceed the growth target. Maher urged people not to use that label.

"Because they are designated based on a formula that prioritizes proficiency. And we are seeing lower rates of proficiency due to the pandemic," he said. "It is not an accurate reflection of the efforts of teachers and school leaders throughout this state."

For 2021-22, 864 schools have been identified as low performing, up from 488 in 2018-19.

CMS went from having 42 schools on the list to 50 — mostly high-poverty schools serving students of color. Hattabaugh said the goal now is to rally families, educators and community partners to build on last year's gains.

"We can dwell on the negative all day but we’ve gotta be upbeat, positive and move ahead," he said. "So that’s what we’re going to be doing for the next several months until we get the students across the stage graduating again."

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NC Department of Public Instruction

This developing story will be updated throughout the day.

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Updated: September 1, 2022 at 3:48 PM EDT
Updated with information from the state Board of Education presentation.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.
Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.