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Is NC schools' recovery from the pandemic bright or brutal?

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

This story originally appeared in the Education newsletter, out Mondays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

Last week’s state Board of Education coverage offered a study in the different ways data can be interpreted. WUNC’s Liz Schlemmer and I both covered a new analysis of North Carolina students’ academic recovery from the pandemic. My headline was “NC students face ‘brutal realities’ of lingering pandemic setbacks in schools.” Schlemmer’s was “New report: third grade reading is a "bright spot" for learning recovery.”

Readers and listeners might reasonably wonder what’s going on. Schlemmer, an experienced education reporter whose work I respect, described the report as “a positive update.” She emphasized the last two years of academic progress, gains on high school English scores and third-grade reading progress, which she described as bringing scores “nearly back to pre-pandemic trends.”

My account opened with board Chair Eric Davis talking about the grim nature of pandemic data being reported across the country and presented in reports to the North Carolina board. I noted that in most subjects and grade levels, two years of gains have not been enough to catch up to pre-pandemic levels of achievement, and cited a call to focus hard on making up lost ground in middle schools. I also included another report presented to the state board, which called for revising federal Every Student Succeeds Act goals downward because the state is meeting almost none of its targets.

A new analysis of North Carolina test scores shows how recent third-grade reading scores compare with pre-pandemic trends and a three-year pre-pandemic average.
NC Department of Public Instruction
A new analysis of North Carolina test scores shows how recent third-grade reading scores compare with pre-pandemic trends and a three-year pre-pandemic average.

It’s a classic “glass half-empty or half-full” case study … except I’d argue that this particular glass is about 12% full, given that 15 of 17 breakouts by subject and grade level showed North Carolina students below pre-pandemic levels.

The third-grade reading analysis is particularly interesting. The “bright spot” interpretation is based on the fact that average scores were declining before the pandemic, and 2023 results are better than what we’d have seen if the downward trend had continued for the last four years. But the scores remain below the three-year average for pre-pandemic results. And only 48% of last year’s third-graders earned “proficient” scores. That’s up from 45% in 2021, at the peak of pandemic disruption, but well below 2019’s 57% proficiency rate. It takes a generous definition of “bright” to celebrate those results, especially given the hundreds of millions of dollars North Carolina has been pumping into third-grade reading since the Read To Achieve program was created in 2012.

Schlemmer and I sometimes confer beforehand on state board coverage, but this time we didn’t. When I got in touch afterward, she said she was also surprised by how different our takes were. She said in choosing her angle she had been struck by the fact that 16 of the 17 charts showed steady improvement. “Looking back, I think both of our stories could have been more balanced,” she said.

There are some broad themes that I suspect would get an “amen” from most of the congregation: We need to recognize gains and celebrate the students, families and educators who are behind them. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that many students were struggling before the pandemic, and the disruption set many of them back further. One more sentiment that I hope unites us: Faced with a choice between despair and resolve, resolve is the right choice for our future.

What to make of CMS opt-in response?

Here’s another development that’s open to interpretation: As I reported last week, tens of thousands of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ parents are not filling in permission forms for their kids to participate in sex education, health screenings and well-being surveys.

The low response rate isn’t new, but the impact is. In previous school years, CMS let families opt out of those programs. Very few did. This year, in response to North Carolina’s new Parents’ Bill of Rights, the district started requiring them to opt in via an online consent form. Most didn’t bother. Of those who did fill out the form, though, a strong majority wanted their kids to participate.

So that poses a question: What’s up with the nonresponders?

One possibility is that they don’t want their kids taking part in these programs, which include various surveys on students’ actions and attitudes; vision, dental and hearing checks; and screenings for depression and suicide prevention. I’ve seen a few social-media comments saying people wouldn’t want their kids exposed to the district’s idea of sex education, but it’s worth noting that state law already mandates an abstinence-based curriculum.

Another is that filling out the form just didn’t make the cut in busy lives. It’s tough to keep up with any child’s agenda, and even harder if there are language or technology barriers, multiple kids or major life events demanding attention. It’s unfortunate if the added task for parents is keeping kids from getting health services or valuable information.

There may be a partial fix for CMS, which revised its policies before school started. Other districts were slower, and lawmakers granted an extension in October. Having had more time to review the 12-page law and get expert advice, state officials and advisers now say opt-out programs seem to meet the definition of consent required by the law — except for certain types of surveys, which do require written permission. That still leaves CMS paying a quarter-million dollars a year for a Panorama survey that’s now being taken by only one-third of eligible 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.