Even though several low-performing public schools in Western North Carolina qualified for a new state policy letting them apply for "charter-like flexibility," no local school districts are interested. Photo by Angie Newsome

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Lack of progress on North Carolina students’ test scores is “frustrating,” state superintendent of schools Mark Johnson said this week.

A nationwide evaluation of educational achievement in fourth- and eighth-graders found that scores for North Carolina students largely remained stable between 2015 and 2017, but went down in some areas. Scores for poor students and minority students also lagged significantly behind other students.

“Teachers in North Carolina are working hard, and our state has made strong investments in early grades,” Johnson said in a Department of Public Instruction press release.

“While it is frustrating for educators and state leaders to see incremental progress instead of general success, we have spearheaded efforts to ensure that all funds invested by our state actually benefit teachers and students. Also, with new leadership at DPI, we have been reevaluating how those funds can best be used to support teachers and to improve students’ outcomes.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tracks student test scores in reading and math and state participation and is a requirement for states to receive federal aid.

Scores for fourth- and eighth-grade students in reading and eighth-grade students in math remained unchanged since the 2015 evaluation, according to data DPI released this week.

But math scores for fourth-graders “saw statistically significant declines” from 2015, but 42 percent of fourth-graders in the state met the NAEP “proficient” standard, which is in line with nearly half of the states in the nation.

Groups left behind?

Data from the study showed that race and poverty were indicators for decreased student performance.

In fourth-grade math, the average score for black students was 26 points lower than scores for white students. Hispanic fourth-grade students had an average score that was 16 points lower than the average score for white students, and students who were eligible for a free/reduced lunch program had an average score 20 points lower than students who weren’t eligible for those programs.

In fourth-grade reading, the gaps were even more pronounced in several categories. Hispanic students’ average scores were 25 points lower than white students and students eligible for free/reduced lunch had scores that were 25 points lower than students who weren’t eligible.

The average reading score for black students in fourth-grade was 24 points lower than scores for white students.

Some of those performance gaps increased even further in eighth-grade math scores. Black students had an average score that was 37 points lower than white students, while the average score for Hispanic students was 23 points lower than scores for white students. Students eligible for free/reduced lunch had scores that were 32 points lower than scores of students who weren’t eligible for the program.

Gender performance gaps in reading between fourth grade and eighth grade students were largely similar, though the data showed that female eighth grade students scored, on average, 12 points higher than their male peers.

Long-term test score improvement

The study also showed student performance increasing over the long-term, with scores for fourth graders in reading and math increasing significantly since the 1998 and 2000 evaluations.

Eighth-grade math proficiency and scores have also increased since 2000, but eighth-grade reading has remained stable.

According to the DPI press release, the NAEP has been tracking student achievement since 1969. Subsequent federal legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act tied participation in the NAEP to the states’ ability to receive federal aid money.

Michael Gebelein

Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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