Schools accountability report shows pandemic's lingering impact

Published September 1, 2022

By Greg Childress

School accountability data from the 2020-21 school year show lower graduation rates, lower rates of proficiency on state tests and more schools designated as low-performing under North Carolina’s A-F school grade performance model.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) released the data during the State Board of Education’s monthly meeting on Thursday.

“While these results are sobering, they are not unexpected,” said Michael Maher, deputy superintendent for the division of standards, accountability and research, reminding the state board of the chaos the pandemic caused in K-12 education across the nation.

Fifty-one percent of the test takers were proficient on state exams last school year. In 2020-21, 45% passed state tests and 59% of students passed them in 2018-19, the school year before the pandemic. (NCDPI unveiled a new testing dashboard on Thursday.)

Maher noted that North Carolina’s test data was released on the same day the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shared a report showing that 9-year-olds lost significant ground in math and reading during the pandemic. The results show the largest average score decline in reading since 1990. The decline in mathematics was the first ever according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“We are not alone in this,” Maher said. “North Carolina is not the only state experiencing this issue.”

The state’s 4-year cohort graduation rate was 86.2%, a modest decline from the 87% reported in 2020-21. The rate was largely unchanged from the 86.5% rate in 2018-19.

State officials expected a “significant decline” in the graduation rate, Maher said.

“What we saw in terms of our graduation rate is not nearly as significant as I would have expected, and I think we owe a lot of gratitude to teachers and school leaders who spent months in the summer helping students not only recapture credits but earn initial credits during summer learning programs.”

Maher said students will require years of additional learning to recover from pandemic-related learning loss.

“We have talked about four years,” Maher said.

Here are some of the accountability data NCDPI shared in a press release:

  • Overall, math scores in elementary and middle school grades were up more significantly than reading scores. The scores on science exams, given at grades 5 and 8, also showed more significant gains, at both the CCR (Career and College Ready) and GLP (Grade Level Proficiency) levels, with grade 8 approaching 2018-19 performance.
  • Among end-of-course exams administered in high school grades, scores on the Math 3 exam exceeded the 2018-19 pre-pandemic performance, while scores on Math 1 and Biology exams improved from the 2020-21 years. Scores on the English II exam remained unchanged for the CCR level and were down slightly at the GLP level.
  • For 2021-22, 864 schools have been identified as low performing, up from 488 in 2018-19. The number of low-performing districts increased to 29 from eight in 2018-19.

Low-performing schools are those that receive a performance grade of D or F and do not exceed growth. Low-performing districts are those where most schools received a performance grade and have been identified as low performing.

Tammy Howard, senior director of the office of accountability and testing, cautioned that the 2021-22 test data must be considered within the context of COVID disruptions and 2018-19 data. The data isn’t intended to evaluate effort or draw conclusions, Howard said.

“Since March 2020, the changes in instruction, particularly related to time and place, restrict the feasibility of typical comparisons of student achievement across years,” Howard said. “Educational data must be viewed as before, during, and eventually after COVID.”

Eighty percent of the A-F school performance grade is based on test scores while 20 percent is based on students’ academic growth over a school year.

Educators and public school advocates argue that student growth is a more accurate picture of  the learning that has taken place in classrooms.

“I share the same concerns of many educators, parents and others who have raised concerns for years about the fairness of the grades,” Truitt said. “The current accountability model does not do justice to the hard work that teachers and students put in every day in schools across the state, and I look forward to working with stakeholders to consider other metrics important to determining school quality.”

NCDPI staffers noted that high school performance grades were negatively impacted by a new ACT benchmark score. The minimum score to enroll in UNC System schools increased from 17 to 19.

The percentage of 11th graders achieving the new UNC minimum of 19 was 41.7, compared to 55.2% in 2020-21 at the previous minimum score of 17. Had the benchmark score remained unchanged at 17, 54.6% of students would have earned the required score.