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NC Board Lowers 'Pass' Score In Response To Reading Law Concerns

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North Carolina students will find it easier this year to pass the state’s standardized tests.  The state board of education decided yesterday to lower the score it would take to be deemed proficient. That means thousands of third-graders will no longer have to attend summer reading camps mandated by the new reading law.

WFAE’s Lisa Miller joins Morning Edition host Kevin Kniestedt in the studio. 

KK: Lisa, why did the state board decide to do this now?

LM: This change comes after the state toughened its tests to correspond to new Common Core standards.  Students took those new tests for the first time last year. So huge numbers of kids who would’ve passed under the old system, were now failing the new tests. We’re talking pass rates going from 60 percent to 45 percent. 

KK: I bet there are some angry kids and parents.

LM: Oh, lots of them. These are families who aren’t used to thinking of their kids as struggling. And then you have the new reading law going into effect this year. That means not passing has some hefty consequences for third graders. Basically, those students have to attend a summer reading camp for six weeks. 

KK: So how many third-graders have their summers back now thanks to the new grading scale?

LM: The state’s testing director is estimating between 10,000 and 12,000.  That breaks down to roughly 11 percent of third-graders.  This is a big relief to many parents, but also to districts.  Take Cabarrus County Schools.  They were expecting a thousand kids in summer camp, but the state wasn’t giving the district enough to accommodate all those students.  So now the district expects 600 students and the state money should cover that. 

KK: I can certainly see the hassle of summer camp.  But if a kid is having a hard time reading, shouldn’t they go? 

LM: Well, I mentioned Cabarrus County.  I was talking to Jason Van Heukelem, the Deputy Superintendent of schools there.  And he said yes, the new grading scale means a lot of kids who could’ve benefited from the camps won’t be going.  On the other hand, he says this eases a lot of anxiety and is probably a more accurate gauge of where students are.  Here he is:

JV: In that respect, I’m really glad that we’re doing that because right now we have 70 percent of children out there who have a level 2 and I just don’t believe that.  I don’t believe that 70 percent of our kids are not on grade-level. 

LM: And you can imagine when you tell a kid they’ve failed, it’s not the best motivator to do better. 

KK: But this change isn’t just for third graders. This is for all students grade 3 and up taking standardized tests. 

LM: Yes, you’re right. But the biggest impact is on third grade because of the reading law. High school students will feel some too since their class grades are tied to these tests. 

KK: So how does the new grading scale work?    

LM: Those students who score a three, which is passing, on the new grading scale, would have likely scored the same on the old test before it got re-tooled. They’d just have been on the low end of what was considered a three then.  State education officials say separating those kids into a new level makes sense because it tells teachers they’re close to being on track, but are still missing the mark. And they say that makes it easier to figure out how to help them. Now, a current level three would move to a four and the current four to a five.    

KK:  But doesn’t the new grading scale defeat the purpose of making a more rigorous test in the first place? 

LM: Yes, that’s been the complaint. If the intention is to raise standards and the same kid who was just barely passing, continues to just barely pass…what’s the difference?  Is this going to be enough of a wake-up call to parents and teachers that more is expected?  I asked Tammy Howard who oversees the state’s testing program that.

TH: If I earn a three, then my parents would be able to look at my individual student report and they will see that I’m not on track for college and career readiness. 

LM: In other words, they’ll see that technically the student passed, but he or she is not where they should be. 

KK: When does the new grading scale take effect?

LM: This year.  And for some high-schoolers who took end-of-course exams in January, those will also be scored to the new grading scale. 

KK: Thanks, Lisa.

LM: Thank you.