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NC Test Scores Provide New Snapshot Of Academic Setbacks During The Pandemic

In March, Romona Matthews helps a student who forgot his iPad. She's carrying her laptop to keep up with students learning remotely.
Ann Doss Helms
Oakdale Elementary teacher Romona Matthews conducts hybrid instruction in March 2021.

In 2019, the last time North Carolina's state exams were given before the pandemic, the composite pass rate for all students was 59%. This year it was 45%.

Scores released Wednesday provide the fullest snapshot to date of a year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The exams were canceled in 2020, when schools were closed.

Last school year, classes and exams resumed, but students moved between virtual and in-person classes as community spread of the coronavirus ebbed and flowed. Teachers often juggled some students connected by Zoom and others in the classroom.

As predicted, the setbacks hit hardest in communities that faced the biggest challenges, widening gaps that existed before the pandemic. For instance:

  • For economically disadvantaged students across North Carolina, the composite pass rate was 29%, compared with 56% for all other students.
  • For students with disabilities, it was 15%, compared with 50% for the rest.
  • For students who are still learning to speak English, known as English learners, the composite pass rate was 14%, versus 48% for all others.
  • By racial group, the composite pass rate was 74% for Asian students, 59% for white students, 34% for Hispanic students and 26% for Black students.

Because of the pandemic disruptions, this year's test results won't be used to assign letter grades and "low performing" labels to schools. And the traditional school growth ratings, which measure how students progressed from one year to the next, are missing this year because of the lack of consistent, comparable data.
Officials say the 2021 data will be used to guide decisions about moving forward — a task that's complicated by the fact that the pandemic is again disrupting the return to classrooms. The report breaks down results on all exams by schools, including all district and charter schools in North Carolina.

"Educators, administrators, parents and many others who are concerned about the education of North Carolina’s children will have access to data that will deepen their understanding of the effects of the past 18 months on our students growth and proficiency and will guide efforts to recover from the losses that we know have occurred," said state Board of Education member Jill Camnitz.

Third-Grade Reading

For years, North Carolina has tried to get third-graders reading on grade level, using a combination of summer reading camps, "social promotion" bans and bonuses and training for teachers. Experts and educators say students who can't read well by late elementary school tend to fall behind on all subjects.

Even before the pandemic there was little progress. In 2019, 57% of all third-graders earned a minimum grade-level reading score, and 45% hit the level considered on track for college and career success.

This year, 45% hit the grade-level mark and 30% hit the higher target. There were also revisions to the testing that may have affected results.

Again, the third-grade reading scores reveal wide gaps:

  • Only 29% of economically disadvantaged third-graders hit the grade-level mark, compared with 57% of all others.
  • For English learners, 18% hit the mark, compared with 49% of those considered proficient in the language.
  • For third-graders with disabilities, the pass rate was 16%, compared with 49% for those without disabilities.
  • The third-grade reading pass rate was 68% for Asian students, 60% for white students, 30% for Hispanic students and 28% for Black students.

Teachers across the state are being trained in a program designed to help them teach "the science of reading" in hopes of improving early reading ability.

Big Challenges In Math

Math scores in grades 3-8 showed similar trends, but were even lower. Overall, 40% of North Carolina students passed those exams, compared with 59% in 2019.

  • For economically disadvantaged students, 23% earned passing math scores, compared with 51% for those from higher-income families.
  • English learners logged a 16% pass rate on math, versus 42% for the rest.
  • The pass rate was 13% for students with disabilities and 44% for those without disabilities.
  • By race, the math pass rate was 74% for Asian students, 54% for white students, 29% for Hispanic students and 19% for Black students.

High Schools Show Less Impact

North Carolina 11th-graders also take the ACT, a college-readiness exam that tests English, math, reading, science and writing. This year, 55% of all students hit the composite score considered to indicate readiness for college, down only one percentage point from 2019.

Four-year graduation rates also showed little change, with 87% graduating on time in 2021 and 2019.

Who Skipped The Exams?

While exams went on last school year, the pandemic led to lower testing rates. Students were required to report to schools for exams, even if they had opted for all-virtual classes because of concerns about contracting COVID-19 and/or exposing fragile family members.

Homeless students, children in foster care, English learners and students with disabilities had lower participation rates than counterparts without those barriers.

Education officials described Wednesday's report as only a first step toward understanding what happened last year. A deeper "learning loss" analysis will be presented to the state board in March 2022, they said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.