Published 12:00 am Friday, November 8, 2013

As education officials have been warning for weeks, end-of-grade test results for 2012-13 dropped dramatically across the state, data released Thursday by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction shows.

The lower proficiency levels in reading and math are due to more rigorous curriculum and testing standards put in place last academic year, and they can’t be compared to those in previous years, education officials say. They won’t be used to hold any student back.

But the results are valuable. Leaders in the Rowan-Salisbury School System and Kannapolis City Schools say the scores will help them determine where they most need to help students improve and do well when the results do count, beginning in 2014.

“While we are all sifting through and studying the newly released data, it is important for parents and students and everyone to understand that this is a transitional year,” Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody said in a news release. “The results we are seeing are baseline results that will alert and guide us in determining the key areas that our district needs to focus on in order to help our students achieve at higher levels of learning.”

The new READY Accountability assessment of student progress, released for the first time, showed fewer than half North Carolina’s students in grade 3 and above scored in the proficient range on course-ending tests in reading, math, science and other topics. Only two tests out of 18 saw a majority of students rated proficient or better — eighth-grade science and high school English II.

In Rowan-Salisbury, 34.9 percent of students were proficient in both reading and math; in Kannapolis City Schools, 37 percent achieved proficiency; statewide, that figure 44.7 percent.

In Rowan-Salisbury, decreases in proficiency ranged from 16 to 25 percentage points in reading, 27 to 44 percentage points in math, and 9 to 33 percentage points in science.

“Seeing the low scores is a hard pill to swallow,” Moody said in the news release. “At the same time we are provided with valuable information on changes that must happen so that we are giving our children what they need to guide them in being successful.”

The new tests include more open-end questions and real-world applications of what students are learning, education officials say. And students have to get more right answers than in the past to be considered proficient.

The new curriculum and testing are meant to ensure that students are ready for college or careers when they graduate high school. The READY report for the 2012-13 school year replaces the ABCs of Public Education, which for 16 years tested the lesser goal of whether children were ready for the next grade.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Julie Morrow and Assessment and Accountability Director Colby Cochran are meeting with principals to begin reviewing and discussing the testing results, the news release said. Moody called it a new beginning.

“So, the question now is, where do we go from here? Our test scores, our growth, our proficiency, our progress is not anywhere close to where we want to be. But it does give us the starting point, the springboard into action of how to do things differently — together. We have what we need in excellent leaders, qualified teachers and bright students. Now, we will work together to pinpoint and fine tune the changes that must happen, she said.

“We know things are not where we want them to be,” State Board of Education Chairman William Cobey said Thursday. “We do believe that we are in a position to see a steady upward climb in the coming years.”

In addition to proficiency, the model measures academic growth, and education officials say under the new standards, a student could meet expected academic growth without achieving proficiency.

Kannapolis City Schools officials pointed out the district exceeded academic growth in reading and math and also met a high number of its academic targets, called Annual Measurable Objectives. The state and federal governments set objectives for proficiency levels that all students must meet. Schools are required to have every subgroup to meet designated proficiency targets in order to reach their objectives.

At the high school level, schools must meet an overall graduation rate as well as have every subgroup reach designated graduation rate benchmarks. In Rowan-Salisbury, the latest four-year graduation rate was 82.9 percent; at A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis, the rate was 84.9 percent; statewide, the rate was 82.5 percent.

To help parents understand the new standards, Kannapolis City Schools has sent letters home with students, added information to its website, made automated phone calls to parents, and discussed the changes at parent-teacher conferences.

“We want parents to understand the changes,” district Superintendent Dr. Pam Cain said in the news release. “We also want them to know that these new standards will benefit their children. The new curriculum does a much better job of getting children to think for themselves, solve problems, create, and collaborate. All these things will get them ready for college and careers and serve them well in life.”

Results released Thursday show Kannapolis schools surpassing predicted achievement and the growth of similar schools in North Carolina, the news release said.

“I am very proud of our staff for the excellent work they are doing with our students,” Cain said. “Our subgroups are making gains, and our graduation rate continues to rise and stay above the state average. I am also pleased that we are meeting and exceeding growth across the district. However, it is important for us to improve our proficiency rates. I know we will do that. We are focused on providing strong literacy instruction in the early grades, and we are expanding our STEM program with more courses at more grade levels. With our outstanding leaders and staff, I am confident that we will have a high level of success.”

Local school districts have 30 days to send individual student scores to parents.

This new state model of assessments aligns more closely with the National Assessment of Educational Progress results, often called the nation’s report card.

State schools Superintendent June Atkinson said raising expectations “doesn’t mean students are not learning and that our teachers are not doing a great job.”

“The reason for raising standards and raising our expectations is to be a part of the solution of making sure that students are ready for options once they leave us,” she said.