North Carolina Education Standards Raise Questions; Local Leaders Have Answers

By Josh Markowitz

Over the past five years, sweeping changes in education standards have occurred in North Carolina. Standards increased in rigor and led to a precarious drop in test scores and new reading proficiency mandates for third graders have placed a burden on elementary school teachers. Now, these new standards are mired in controversy and the state of education is in flux again.

It All Began with the Adoption of a National Common Core

In 2010, new standards for math and English known as the Common Core were rolled out after a year of non-partisan development. States that adopted the new standards would be eligible to receive more federal money through the Race to the Top program. Like the vast majority of states, North Carolina agreed to use the standards and began the implementation process.

Previously, North Carolina used a system known as the North Carolina Standard Course of Study to guide curriculum across the state. With the introduction of the Common Core, those standards replaced the state’s math and English benchmarks, while North Carolina maintained its own independent standards for all other subject areas.

William Harrison, superintendent of Alamance-Burlington School System (ABSS) was the chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education at the time of the adoption of the Common Core. He says state education leaders were already in the process of developing new standards known as the Essential Standards, but since these standards were so closely aligned to the Common Core it made sense to become a Common Core state. “It was a unanimous decision for the board,” he said.

Harrison has seen countless changes in standards over his career, but the move to the Common Core particularly stands out to him. “That was probably as significant a change as I’ve seen in 40 years in education,” he said.

However, some experts say the new Common Core standards actually are not all that different from the ones they replaced.

Under the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, the guidelines were fairly general. “They were a good sort of big picture area for me to start with,” said Jeff Carpenter, an assistant professor of education at Elon University and former high school English teacher.

One of the primary changes in moving from system to system came in the terminology used in the writing of the standards. Julie Justice, an assistant professor of education at Elon and former middle school English teacher, said teachers who relied heavily on outside materials had to change more to be in tune with the language of the new system.

According to Scott Morrison, an assistant professor of education at Elon and former middle school social studies teacher, the other major shift is experienced in the way in the Common Core standards approach teaching. He said while the standards are not all that different, the new format approaches education on a more conceptual level rather than a topical level.

“I think it would be erroneous, however, to conclude that even radical changes in standards would transform what goes on in our schools,” he said.

Standardized Tests’ Redesigns Led to Drops in Student Performance

Infographic by Josh Markowitz

Along with the Common Core standards came a need for a redesign of the state’s standardized tests to match the content that was now being emphasized in classrooms. When the redesigned tests led to some startling drops in the number of students meeting state expectations the new system raised questions.

State records show the final school year under the old test (2011–12), 81.4 percent of students passed. Under the new test the following year (2012–13 is the only year of data that exists under the new test) only 44.1 percent of students met the expected levels. Over 340,000 students took the test both years.

While North Carolina worked to toughen its testing standards, it is not the only state to experience sharp declines in passing rates after introducing the Common Core. Both Kentucky and New York saw large reductions after the introduction of Common Core-based tests that featured more rigorous standards than the states previously used.

Despite the large drop in scores, Harrison says it was not unexpected. “I think it’s just a process, but when you see only 44 percent of students are proficient that’s cause for concern. But I also think it shows the old standards weren’t rigorous enough,” he said.

In fact, Harrison is glad to see an increased focus in toughening standards.

“The standards are much more rigorous and the expectations are greater,” he noted. “I think that’s something we owe to our students.”

Experts say several factors help explain why the initial scores were so low. First of all, the new tests are not yet normed as precisely as the previous North Carolina Standard Course of Study tests were. The old tests had been normed and re-normed across the state over a period of several decades to produce the intended results, whereas these new tests only had one opportunity to set an appropriate difficulty level.

Standardized tests like these go through a norming process to produce a bell curve. In this process, sample tests are given to small groups of children to examine how they perform and then reworked to try to achieve a normally distributed result across a larger population. Educators also say they can attribute the drop in scores to the fact that teachers were not well-prepared to help students succeed on the new tests because they did not know what to expect. Carpenter said teachers not only had little information about the tests, but they also lacked resources in the form of workbooks and textbooks needed for classwork in some cases. Justice echoed this statement and added that teachers needed better professional development support. “Knowing what is on the test makes teachers better prepared,” she said.

As teachers get more accustomed to the new standards, Harrison expects to see test scores raise fairly quickly.

Justice added that it is also important to remember that standardized tests are not designed for everyone to pass. They are designed to serve students’ needs by finding problem areas.

‘Read to Achieve’ Brings Added Testing and Some Say it is Just Too Much

As the Common Core standards and tests were being implemented, North Carolina also introduced changes to how reading is approached in elementary schools.

Legislation known as Read to Achieve was introduced in 2012 and mandates that all third graders need to read at a third-grade level in order to advance to fourth grade. If students do not meet the requirements during the year, they can pass a retest or summer school program focusing on reading to move on to fourth grade. Still, state records indicate that about one-eighth of third graders had to be held back last year because of the new legislation.

Read to Achieve is controversial among educators because of the amount and type of assessment required. Justice said the law requires teachers to assess students using M Class software, which is based on a statewide contract with the software maker Amplify. The software generates reports that are used to track student progress.

Morrison said the amount of testing with Read to Achieve is so great that children are each sometimes assessed up to 20 times per year. Teachers say this takes away time that could be using to teach different subjects or give other individualized attention.

Justice, whose professional work focuses on literacy policy, believes the assessments Read to Achieve requires were already being performed by skilled teachers under their own, personalized systems. She explained that in a class of 20 students, 12 are likely making noticeable and expected progress in their reading, five are making this progress for most of the year, but may suffer some setbacks where they need to be assessed more and only three are struggling to the point where they need the level of testing that Read to Achieve mandates every student go through.

She used a health metaphor, equating the reading levels to the individual ways in which people respond to illness. “This law is basically requiring x-rays and lab work every day on people who aren’t sick,” she said.

“You don’t need to be running daily labs on someone who isn’t sick.”

Despite Justice’s complaints about the law, Morrison notes that he has seen increased attention placed on what the law wanted to address. “I’ve noticed greater attention on student’s ability to read at grade level,” he said.

However, he is unsure of whether the program is fostering a love of reading within kids or just working to raise proficiency. “When I’m observing in elementary schools I do see a focus on reading, but I do wonder whether teachers are going about teaching reading in effective ways,” he said.

As an administrator, Harrison said he appreciates the goals of the law. “It’s a policy that was well-intended and I agree 100 percent that students should be proficient,” he said while also agreeing that there may be too much testing involved in the program. “They did that when I was on the state board and I was responsible for some of it so I won’t point fingers,” he said.

Still, Justice cannot shake her dissatisfaction with the law. “I do not see any value in Read to Achieve, I do not suggest anything in its place, it just needs to go,” she said, adding that the goal of the law is impossible given the materials used to execute its intent.

Like the new Common Core tests, the Read to Achieve tests are normed so that it is impossible for everyone to pass. In addition to the actual tests being normed, the determination of what a third-grade reading level is and the readability of materials used are all based on normal distributions as well, creating an even bigger disadvantage.

“You cannot make laws saying all kids will pass, because the test is designed so that not all kids will pass,” she said. “Read to Achieve is a problem because you are going to retain kids who are just part of a normal distribution.”

The only type of standardized tests that are possible for everyone to pass are ones that are not normed and instead based on a cut-off like the AP Tests rather than a specific point for proficiency on the normal distribution.

Because of the numerous “unsustainable” flaws with the law, Justice believes Read to Achieve could be repealed as quickly as within this session of the state legislature.

Julie Justice discusses the Read to Achieve program in North Carolina. Video by Josh Markowitz

Finding the Right Improvements for North Carolina and Alamance County

Last summer, the state legislature set up a review commission to examine the Common Core standards in North Carolina and decide whether to retain them. The Common Core has become a highly divisive issue that Carpenter refers to as “sort of a political Rorschach test,” but he said if the state ditches the Common Core like Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have any new standards would have essentially the same substance.

As this political battle occurs, experts believe there are areas that can be focused on right now without worrying about the debate in Raleigh.

Harrison said he is unsure of what may develop. “I have some concerns about the direction of the general assembly,” he explained. “They have not demonstrated that education is a real priority. They have some legislation that is potentially harmful to public schools.”

The Alamance-Burlington School System’s five-year strategic plan, adopted in June of 2014, focuses on finding ways to provide every student with high-quality instruction.

He cited the new A through F grading system for schools, the reductions in teacher pay and abandonment of the Teaching Fellows program as examples of decisions that have not inspired his faith over the past six to eight years.

Morrison believes the system needs to break away from the idea that kids need to read, write and do math all day to improve in those areas. “There is research that when kids go outside, kids have P.E., kids have projects that are interdisciplinary they tend to do better on standardized testing,” he explained.

In Alamance County, the focus is on creating a school system that works to prepare students for whatever the state expects and beyond. “If we set good standards to attract and retain the highest quality teachers we are setting ourselves up well,” Harrison said.

He added that under the current system of standards ABSS has set a goal of getting 80 percent of their students meeting the proficiency benchmarks.

“We tried to have ambitious goals, but we wanted to make sure we had goals that were achievable.”

One of ABSS’s main goals right now is working to improve the professional-development system in place for teachers in order to provide them with opportunities to improve their classroom skills.

Currently, ABSS is working to ensure everything they do aligns with their carefully crafted strategic plan. “We’re not doing things just to be doing things,” Harrison said.

Gerry Francis, executive vice president at Elon University, worked on the development of the strategic plan. He sees clear areas in which ABSS can improve in order to provide students with the best education possible. He added that the district’s facilities and resources must be upgraded substantially.

Harrison said many members of the community have taken great interest in working to improve the school system. “This community has adopted an ambitious vision and they developed a strategic plan to help reach that vision,” he said.

For Francis, a community is a reflection of its schools. “If we are going to have a better community, we have to have better schools,” he said. “Better doesn’t mean that they are bad right now — we can always strive to be better.”

He said there should be an increased focus on recruiting teachers to live and work in this community and that will require the private sector to invest more in education. “I think in the next 5 to 7 years you’re going to see significant changes in the quality of education and the support that goes into it,” he said.

Despite some present issues, Harrison said ABSS has a solid foundation for future student success. “It’s not broken, it needs to be remodeled,” he explained. “The best thing I can do as superintendent is create an environment where great teachers want to come and have principals that support them. At the end of the day as a nation and a state we have to show a commitment to great teaching.”

About this multimedia journalism project:

R4PG sat down with reporter Josh Markowitz to discuss North Carolina’s education system- what works, and what doesn’t.