Consider Wake’s lower test scores in context of the pandemic, school leaders say

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Wake County school leaders are cautioning against reading too much into the drop in the district’s test scores because fewer students than normal took the exams.

Scores released in September showed that 55.4% of Wake County students passed state exams during the 2020-21 school year, down from 65.2% passing in the 2018-19 school year.

But school officials said Monday that the latest test results are “atypical” in part because far more students than normal skipped the state exams during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a normal year, more than 95% of Wake students take the state exams. But the test participation rate dropped below 80% at the majority of Wake’s schools due to parental concerns about sending their unvaccinated children on campus.

Critics of the school district have pointed to the low test scores to say that Wake has failed its 160,000 students.

But school board members said Monday that critics aren’t taking into account the pandemic context for the tests.

“I think sometimes our loudest critics are people who have never set foot maybe in a public school at all and particularly not the ones that they are criticizing,” said board member Heather Scott, chair of the board’s student achievement committee. “They don’t see the work and the efforts that these tests could never measure.

“Not that we should not look at this information, but we have and still are experiencing a global pandemic.”

The federal government requires states to test public school students annually to assess their academic performance. The U.S. Department of Education waived the exams for the 2019-20 school year due to COVID, but mandated them for last school year to assess how the pandemic affected learning.

Test scores dropped across North Carolina and nationwide in the 2020-21 school year. Only 45.4% of North Carolina’s public school students passed state reading, math and science exams last school year compared to 58.8% before the pandemic.

Viewing school test results with caution

Brad McMillen, Wake’s assistant superintendent for data, research and accountability, said Monday that the test results should be viewed in the context of the challenges faced last school year, including:

Multiple and changing modes of instruction that left students with only limited amounts of in-person instruction.

Inconsistencies in access to internet and technology devices while students were taking online classes.

Lower than normal test participation rates.

Atypical changes in enrollment that resulted in Wake having at least 3,000 fewer students than the prior year.

New standards were assessed in the reading exams in fourth through eighth grades.

Wake had one of the lowest test participation rates in the state last school year with only 79% of elementary and middle school students taking end-of-grade math and reading exams. Participation among Wake high school students on the different state end-of-course exams ranged from 78% to 86%.

The test participation rate was below 80% in 117 of Wake’s 192 schools. McMillen said the participation rate was below 60% in a number of schools.

“We did have lower than typical test participation rates, which obviously compromised our ability to really lean heavily on some of those proficiency rate data that came out,” McMillen told the board.

McMillen said schools with a participation rate of below 85% were told they didn’t have much of a leg to stand on when it came to looking at the aggregate results to decide what data was meaningful and actionable.

Waiting until 2022 to set testing baseline

The test participation rate in Wake was so low that McMillen said it might not be until spring 2022 before they can set a new performance baseline for the district.

Participation rates were down last school year because the majority of Wake’s students signed up for the Virtual Academy program to only take online courses. Virtual Academy students accounted for the majority of students not taking the exams, which the state required to be taken in-person to ensure test security.

There wasn’t a penalty for skipping the exams in elementary and middle schools. At the high school level, Wake only counted the exams if they improved a student’s grade in a course.

But even if the participation rate was 100%, McMillen said the other complications would have made it difficult to compare the test results to prior years.

Blain Dillard, a Cary parent who has been critical of the math program used in Wake high schools, tweeted that school leaders are only making excuses for the low scores.

“This school system likes to think it’s infallible,” Dillard tweeted Tuesday. “As such, it severely lacks the ability to be honestly introspective or deeply curious or skeptical about negative trends in data.

“They always have an answer and it never involves looking in the mirror. Always an excuse. Always.”

Reflecting on new Wake County test results

But McMillen said the test results for individual students are as valid and useful as they have ever been. Wake used the test data to help students this school year.

“It was a reflection of what that student was able to do that day on that test,” McMillen said. “The problem with the scores is when you start to aggregate them and start to extrapolate those results to kids who didn’t actually sit for the test and say that represents their experience.”

One of the challenges facing school leaders locally and nationally is how to deal with the learning loss from the pandemic. Wake will conduct teacher focus groups to reflect on student learning needs.

Data also presented on Monday showed that Wake’s four-year high school graduation is at 90.5%. McMillen said the graduation rate is “just about par with 2020” when Wake went above 90% for the first time to hit 90.8%.

He said the graduation rate data is still reliable.

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