Split NC education board OKs new testing levels

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 7, 2014

RALEIGH (AP) — A split North Carolina State Board of Education agreed Thursday to change how students are labeled based on standardized test scores in a move that likely means more students will be considered proficient in skills and courses. It could also mean thousands of third-graders will avoid summer reading camps.
The board, in an 8-4 vote, agreed to expand the number of achievement levels, or grade categories, from four to five starting with this year’s end-of-grade and end-of-course tests. The alteration creates a new level in which public school children graded under the old matrix as failing to meet grade-level requirements would now be considered as having “sufficient command” of the skills tested to advance to the next grade.
The adjustments allow some leeway for borderline students who missed out of meeting grade- or course-level requirements by a question or two, or to account for usual statistical variances in grading, said Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson.
“Except for a very small number, most of the superintendents believe that this would allow them to have greater precision” and offer more differentiated instruction based on student needs, she said at the state board meeting.
Without the changes and combined with new higher standards approved by the board last year that lowered the overall percentages of proficient students during the 2012-13 school year, many school districts worried they would be unable to handle all the third-graders requiring reading help.
Under the changes approved Thursday, the passing rate for third-grade reading would have grown by nearly 12 percentage points, meaning as many as 12,000 more of those student students would have met cutoff score threshold, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
Board member Becky Taylor of Greenville voted against the plan, saying she’s worried those borderline students — particularly the third graders — won’t get the help they otherwise would have received. Taylor said she’s also concerned “parents not understanding that their child does need a lot more (help), and not to just say, ‘everything’s great.”’
Passing the reading test is one of several paths the state’s 105,000 third-graders can follow to meet the proficiency requirement and get promoted to fourth grade under a 2012 law pushed by Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. The reading boot camp is considered one remedial activity to help students meet the threshold.
Under the four-level measuring stick in place for decades, students scoring at or above proficiency would be identified as earning Achievement Level 3 (solid command of skills and knowledge) or the highest Achievement Level 4 (superior command). Level 2 (partial command) and Level 1 (limited command) students could retake the tests or get more individualized help, but were rarely be held back.
With five Achievement Levels, those students on the upper end of the receiving Level 2 scores will now be lapped into the passing Level 3, which will now be designated as having “sufficient command” but “not yet on track for college-and-career readiness without additional academic support.” The old Levels 3 and 4 are now Levels 4 and 5, each with the new stamp of being on track for the work world or higher education.
Board member John Tate of Charlotte said he wasn’t persuaded the change was warranted. “We do enough things that confuse the public by shifting back and forth,” he said.
Atkinson, who doesn’t have a board vote, said teachers and schools have other methods to give individualized help “to make sure that the children who are on that bubble get the necessary extra help and assistance that they may need.” She pointed to real-time assessments teachers are using in the classroom to measure if children are understanding concepts and making progress.
Public school students take end-of-grade tests in grades 3-8 for reading, math, language arts and science. There are also end-of-course classes for high-school level biology, math and English.