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Coming Thursday: NC releases 2022 test scores and revives its school ratings

 East Mecklenburg High students take exams in the school library in February 2022.
Ann Doss Helms
East Mecklenburg High students take exams in the school library in February 2022.

Thursday’s release of 2022 test results will provide a first glimpse of how much North Carolina students’ academic skills have rebounded after a full year of in-person instruction.

State reading, math and science exams were canceled in 2020, when schools closed because of COVID-19. In 2021 scores plummeted, here and across the country, after a year of remote and hybrid learning for many students. That year, North Carolina held off on issuing school letter grades.

On Thursday, the state will issue updated school performance grades, the first since 2019. They’re based 80% on student proficiency levels and 20% on students’ progress. Schools that earn D’s and F’s will be labeled low-performing unless they exceed the state’s target for progress.

State officials warn that academic recovery is likely to take more than one year and that 2022 scores won’t be fully comparable to pre-pandemic years. Last school year, all districts offered in-person classes, but many also offered a remote option. And COVID-19 surges continued to force quarantines and isolation, driving up student and teacher absences.

Even before the pandemic, proficiency on standardized exams was strongly linked to demographics. Black and Hispanic students, those from low-income homes, students with disabilities and immigrants just learning English traditionally score much lower than counterparts with more advantages. As a result, the lowest grades almost always land in high-poverty schools serving mostly students of color.

“I think we are all aware of the difficulty in those communities with those schools and those designations,” said Tammy Howard, senior director of accountability and testing for the Department of Public Instruction. “But the initial intent, and I think the ongoing intent, has always been to identify where support needs to go.”

Watching the data in CMS

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where roughly two-thirds of students are Black or Hispanic and many schools have high concentrations of poverty, 42 schools out of 166 that got performance grades in 2019 were rated low-performing.

In April, the board fired Superintendent Earnest Winston, in part because members said he had not done enough to create a plan for improvement.

At a back-to-school news briefing Friday, Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said CMS has used federal money for high-poverty schools, combined with COVID-19 aid, to bump up salaries for principals at 10 of the lowest-performing schools and offer additional pay for them to recruit highly effective teachers.

“We’ll be seeing how that plays out this year. That’s a definite strategy that’s (been) proven over the decades,” he said.

Hattabaugh said he has reorganized administrative offices to provide more support and a quicker response to schools’ needs. And he said CMS is focusing on recruiting teachers for the most essential tested subjects, including elementary school reading and Math I in high school. That includes seeking help from top teachers who may be teaching more advanced math, he said.

“We’ll have some great teachers that have taught AP, IB, asked them, ‘Hey, step up to the plate, give us one section for Math I.’ And principals will be working with that,” he said.

Hattabaugh said other efforts, such as a crackdown on chronic absences, are part of a push to hold everyone accountable for improving results.

This year, Hattabaugh says federal COVID-19 relief money, which runs through 2024, gives CMS an unusual chance to pump resources into struggling schools, including academic coaches, social workers and counselors.

“We have a sense of urgency here in the district,” he said. “We have the funds from the federal government that allows us to do more than what we’ve ever been able to do.”

But ongoing staff shortages can make it hard to fill those jobs even when there’s money, he said: “This is a perfect storm when we need the best teachers in the classroom to move student achievement forward, we’re having to do everything we can to deploy out various staff members to assist to ensure that we have a great teacher in every classroom.”

Setbacks in reading and math

Before the pandemic, North Carolina had spent years — and more than $200 million — trying to increase the number of third graders reading on grade level. Results had been disappointing, with 45% of all third graders on grade level in 2019. Only about 30% of Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged third-graders hit that mark.

As students tried to learn from home in 2020-21, third grade reading scores dropped to 34% across the board, and 20% or lower for Black, Hispanic and low-income students.

The disruption to in-person classes caused even bigger setbacks in math, especially for students who already faced disadvantages. For math in grades 3-8, proficiency fell from 39% to 19% for Black students, from 51% to 29% for Hispanic students and from 44% to 23% for economically disadvantaged students.

A WFAE report based on 2021 scores found that CMS, which spent most of 2020-21 in remote learning, saw bigger setbacks than nearby districts that brought students back faster. That trend has since been found in statewide and national data as well.

This year’s data will include results in all tested subjects for all of North Carolina’s public schools, including charter schools, along with growth ratings, high school graduation rates, school performance grades and low-performing lists. Data will be posted here Thursday morning after it’s presented to the state Board of Education. Stream that meeting here, and get details about the data being presented here.

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Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.