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NC students face ‘brutal realities’ of lingering pandemic setbacks in schools

A math class at Coulwood STEM Academy, one of the state's highest-rated schools for growth in 2022.
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
A math class at Coulwood STEM Academy, one of the state's highest-rated schools for growth in 2022.

North Carolina’s Board of Education heard a new analysis of slow post-pandemic progress Wednesday, while acknowledging the state is now meeting hardly any of its federal academic targets.

“Honestly facing these brutal realities has the potential to manifest within us feelings of dejection,” board Chair Eric Davis said as he opened Wednesday’s meeting. He noted that schools across the country continue to struggle with high absences, low test scores and mental health challenges.

He said disturbing data could continue next month, when the board gets reports on teacher vacancies and student discipline issues. But he urged policymakers and educators not to give up.

“The recovery gap is wide, and feels even wider on top of preexisting equity gaps. Our approach to enacting and implementing responsive efforts must be equally, if not more, comprehensive to meet the needs of each and every student …,” Davis said. “Let’s find strength in remembering that those who came before us faced even greater challenges.”

Charting long-term trends

The General Assembly has set aside $550,000 this year and next for ongoing analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects. Department of Public Instruction staff worked with the Cary-based SAS analytics company to analyze test-score trends from 2013 to 2019; chart how far they dropped in 2021, when many schools held remote or hybrid classes; then see how close 2022 and 2023 results have come to closing the gap.

State research director Jeni Corn said the report “really helps us take that long view of where North Carolina was, what the impact of the pandemic was and what the results have been for the past couple of years.” But while the approach was new, the results were familiar: Gains in 2022 and 2023 have not, in most cases, offset the losses.

The biggest exception was high school English II scores, where scores went up in 2021 and have remained higher than in pre-pandemic years. SAS Vice President John White said it’s not clear why this happened but “we’ve seen this trend occur in some of the other states that we’re working with, so there might be something very different about the high school English tests.”

The biggest remaining gaps are in middle school math and English, Corn said.

“This has been an issue in this state for many, many years. And the pandemic really just kind of put a spotlight on that and as a state we need to kind of recommit ourselves to what’s going on in our middle schools,” she said.

The new report charts how 2022 and 2023 scores compare with pre-pandemic trends.
SAS/NC Department of Public Instruction
The new report charts how 2022 and 2023 scores compare with pre-pandemic trends.

“Folks kept asking us, ‘How will we know when we have recovered at the state, the district and the school level?’ ” Corn said. She said districts and charter schools will get their own data later this month, and the answer may vary by location.

Falling short on ambitious goals

The board also heard a report on the state’s 10-year plan for meeting federal Every Student Succeeds Act goals. The plan, which used 2016 as a baseline and began in 2017, set ambitious goals for growth in reading, math, graduation rates and English learner progress, accountability director Tammy Howard said.

She said the state was falling behind before the pandemic hit, and now “the impact of the pandemic has made it so that we have very few schools — and at a state level — meeting those interim progress targets for that long-term goal.” That’s true even though those targets were already pushed back two years, she said.

Out of 51 academic targets for 2023, the only one North Carolina met was for Asian students graduating on time.

Howard said staff is working on revised goals, which will be put out for public comment in February before a March board vote.

Progress on meeting federal targets before and after the pandemic. Each category has targets for different groups of students.
NC Department of Public Instruction
Progress on meeting federal targets before and after the pandemic. Each category has targets for different groups of students.

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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.