Resetting the school-performance baseline

Nov. 09, 2013 @ 05:46 PM

For weeks, Durham Public Schools officials have been laying a sobering groundwork for the release of the results of North Carolina’s standardized testing.

Scores will drop, they have told audiences of parents, business people and elected officials. But so will scores all across the state, they said, because of new standards and because teachers are simultaneously implementing and learning to teach to a new curriculum.

Thursday, the results bore them out.

Overall, roughly one in three Durham students tested as proficient – 34 percent. Statewide, the rate was slightly more than 10 percentage points greater – 44.7 percent.

Across the subject areas tested, the declines generally mirrored the 30 to 40 percentage point drops officials predicted.  Some of the sharper declines were in the middle schools, where students testing as proficient or better dropped from 85 percent on 8th grade math, for example, to 34 percent.

There were bright spots in the data – school officials stressed with good reason that 77 percent of schools met or exceeded growth projections, beating the state average (71 percent) by six percentage points. “Growth is significant because it indicates that a student is making gains toward individual academic goals,” DPS said in a news release on the results.

And eight DPS schools had proficiency ratings above 50 percent, led by Durham School of the Arts at 59.4 percent. Pearsontown Elementary, J. D. Clement Early College High School, Mangum Elementary, Easley Elementary, Morehead Montessori, Forest View Elementary and Little River Elementary also topped 50 percent.

But there were some dismally low spots, too. Fayetteville Street Elementary had just one in 10 of its students score as proficient, a profoundly disturbing figure.

All in all, it will take considerably more scrutiny of the data to really yield the picture of how our schools are doing compared to their peers across the state. School board chairwoman Heidi Carter argued plausibly that “students are not losing ground. They are simply being challenged at higher levels.”

While raising standards and challenging students to perform at higher levels is a positive move, the almost inevitable collateral damage is that for parents – not to mention educators themselves – it is hard to evaluate progress or lack of it based on this year’s data.

The school district’s news release noted correctly that this becomes a “baseline year.
It talks of “charting our progress going forward, not looking back.”

The schools pledge to “identify gaps in teaching and learning” and to make “necessary shifts and adjustments to best support students, teachers and schools.”

If the new data prove to be powerful tools for driving continued improvement in the schools and if they set the stage for renewing our climb upward in scores with the next round of tests, then the dislocation and dismay of last week’s results will fade.