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The majority of North Carolina public school students failed end-of-grade and course state exams last school year, according to test results released last week — including in Chatham County Schools, though the district performed above the state average in multiple categories.
The scores reflect the learning challenges brought by COVID-19 and remote learning during the 2020-21 school year. At CCS, for instance, 45.3% of high schoolers demonstrated grade-level proficiency last school year — or passed their exams — as opposed to 53.3% in 2018-19, before the pandemic, according to district data. Among CCS elementary and middle schoolers, 48.6% of students were grade-level proficient, compared to 64.8% in 2018-19.
Across North Carolina, 44.7% of high schoolers passed state exams given last school year, according to results presented at last Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting, and 45.6% of elementary and middle school students demonstrated proficiency. During the 2018-19 school year, 60.4% of elementary and middle school students passed exams, according to that same data, and 52.7% of high school students did. Though scores are lower than typical in most districts this year, state and local leaders alike warned against comparing this year’s data to pre-pandemic scores.
“We know that the conditions by which the students were instructed changed, but the assessment stayed the exact same,” said CCS’s Amanda Moran, the district’s assistant superintendent of academic services and instructional support.
“So if you are a person in the community, and you don’t understand that, you might look at the assessments and you think, ‘Wow, the students did much worse in some of the areas,’” she said. “But we also know that the conditions by which they were instructed were extremely different. That to me is the limitation — is that it’s really comparing two different things that are not equal.”
Last year, for example, the majority of CCS students remained in some form of online learning through April. Though elementary students returned to hybrid in-person learning in October and November, they continued with three days of remote learning through April. Middle schoolers returned to hybrid in-person learning in December; high schoolers did in February.
The U.S. Dept. of Education and the N.C. General Assembly granted the state waivers from school accountability for last year — meaning the state didn’t give school performance grades — partially in recognition of the unique challenges brought by COVID-19.
Normally, the state uses proficiency scores from those tests to assign a performance grade to each individual school on an A-through-F scale. The scale also factors in student growth, but that makes up only 20% of the accountability score, whereas the proficiency score makes up 80% of that grade. Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law last week legislation that temporarily waives the school performance grade requirement.
Though students didn’t receive the same waiver for taking their end-of-year and end-of-course tests, fewer students than normal took their tests than in years past — which they were required to take in-person, even as some schools didn’t yet meet in-person. In N.C., 7% of elementary and middle schoolers and 8% of high school students opted out of the exams. In Chatham, the same percentage of K-8 students opted out of taking exams, but fewer than 5% of high schoolers did.
Last year’s scores also varied from prior years in part because some high schoolers took their exams months after completing courses in the fall semester due to COVID-19 safety concerns regarding in-person testing.
“The data reported for the 2020–21 school year is presented for educators and parents to identify where additional support is needed as students begin the 2021–22 school year,” the state Dept. of Public Instruction’s testing website says. “Comparing the 2020–21 data with any previous year’s data prior to COVID is cautioned.”
The DPI report shows COVID-19 effects were acute among students from economically disadvantaged families across the state, along with Black and Hispanic students — with pre-existing gaps in scores reflected in last year's lower scores. Last school year's testing data show 28.8% of economically disadvantaged students demonstrated grade-level proficiency on exams, compared to 44.6% in 2018-19. Less than 25% of Black students in N.C. passed exams last year; 41% did in 2018-19. A third of Hispanic students passed last year; 48.6 did the year prior.
Public school students in North Carolina take end-of-grade tests in reading and math every year from 3rd through 8th grade. High school students take four End-of-Course tests: English 2, Biology, Math 1 and Math 3. During the 2019-20 school year, districts didn’t conduct end-of-year exams due to COVID-19, when all N.C. schools couldn’t offer any form of in-person instruction.
Chatham’s grade-level proficiency and college- and career-readiness scores for reading topped the state average for all grades, and exceeded the state proficiency rate for math in every grade except 8th grade. In addition, the district’s high school score outperformed the state average in English II and Math I.
Still, CCS saw declines in nearly all categories compared to 2018-19 results. The district identified the following areas as ones to focus on in a press release it sent regarding test results last week: 8th-grade science, high school biology and Math 3 and proficiency levels for academically and intellectually gifted students (who scored the highest in the district in many areas, but fell behind the state in some areas).
Not all areas saw declines, though. Prior to the pandemic, for instance, the grade-level proficiency for English was 62.7%. This year, it was 63.4%.
“The results speak to how we pulled together resources to support our students during an incredibly challenging school year,” said Chatham County Schools Superintendent Anthony Jackson in that release. “The data reflect the dedication of our staff and the perseverance of our students. Having our students excel during the pandemic would not have been possible without the dedication of our district and school-based staff, and the support of multiple community partners who helped learning continue, whether it was remote or in-person.”
Moran said that while the district plans to use state test scores to further address learning gaps, data collected by individual teachers throughout the year prove more useful for offering tailored instruction to each student.
Additionally, standardized tests aren’t a perfect measurement of learning. Some students, for example, struggle with test-taking, or had personal extenuating circumstances the day they took exams. While test scores offer a valuable measurement of student progress, Moran warned against using any kind of test data to make direct conclusions about what students are learning — pandemic or not.
“Sometimes, this one test might not be a full indicator of what the student is able to do,” she said, “and that’s why we feel so strongly that the assessment we do in the classroom throughout the entire school year that is formative and skill-based and is so critical and important to have in tandem with this type of testing, because then we get the multiple types of data over time for students.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.