11/05/13 — Board eyes dropping graduation projects

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Board eyes dropping graduation projects

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 5, 2013 1:46 PM

Told to brace for "significantly lower" scores on statewide tests this year, the school board Monday night hinted at reversing its stance on requiring a graduation project in the district.

Last week, Gov. Pat McCrory laid the groundwork for the end-of-grade and end-of-course test results, out later this week and expected to show fewer students and schools meeting the new proficiency requirements. He suggested that the decline was due to the new standards, which replace the ABCs model approved in the mid-1990s, and not a reflection on teacher and student ability.

"This is an interesting position for the governor to take because he could have taken what is going to be lower scores, or appear to be lower test scores, and he could have run with that -- pursued the agenda of private school voucher and that sort of thing -- but he took a high ground and he said the data don't support that kind of conclusion," Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability/student services, said.

McFadden told the Wayne County Board of Education that the results reflect the sweeping changes made to all subject areas during 2012-13.

"There was a new curriculum in all content areas. This is unprecedented. I have not seen this before, but I've only been here four decades," he said, drawing laughter from the audience. "I've seen them typically, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction will have a content area they'll work on a couple years. They'll roll it out and there'll be new curriculum in that content area. Then they'll work a couple years on another content area. They'll update that and then roll that one out. This is the first time I ever remember all of them being changed at one time."

With new curriculum comes new tests and new accountability models and standards, he added.

"I always make this point when I make a presentation -- tests and accountability are separate issues," he said. "North Carolina has excellent end-of-grade, end-of-course tests. They're held to the highest psychometric standards. They're on par with any nationally standardized achievement tests anywhere."

McFadden explained that the high school requirements factor in other "performance indicators," including the ACT test now given to all high school juniors, graduation rates, a more rigorous math requirement, WorkKeys test and graduation project, the latter which boils down to a simple "yes or no." Wayne County Public Schools, he pointed out, is one of the school systems in the state that continues to require it.

With tests changed across the state and across every subject area and grade level, the district can expect "significantly lower school performance scores," he said.

"In the neighborhood of -30 to -40 points," he said. "On a 100-point scale, 30 to 40 points is a huge, huge change. We've been trying to prepare the public for this. The state's been trying to prepare the public for this, trying to prepare you (the board) for this. There's going to be a dramatic what appears to be a decline in achievement. It's not. It's just that the standards are much higher now, so fewer students are meeting it.

"Parents need to expect lower achievement levels. If a parent has been accustomed to seeing level 3s and 4s come home, they may see a level 2 this year."

Board member Chris West suggested one possible alternative.

"Would we be better served as a school system to maybe spend more time focusing on the areas that are going to be significant in our evaluation?" he asked. "High school students spend a lot of time on graduation projects. If we're saying that it really bears no weight in our performance indicators, would we not be better served to give these students more time to work on the areas that are actually being tested?"

"That's certainly a question you can debate at the board level," McFadden said. "That is a board policy."

He said the state formerly mandated the graduation project, but dropped the requirement about four years ago.

"I know it may be a very good project for students to learn, but they can develop that skill later," board member Thelma Smith said. "What they need to do is get out of high school with the best scores that they possibly can."

Mrs. Smith suggested there has been "too much testing and too little money."

"They have taken money away from teachers, from the classroom and everything else," she said. "This is not a good picture and I agree with Chris -- take that graduation project out since this is the law from the N.C. school board or whatever and let them concentrate on these new things, OK, like WorkKeys."

Several agreed that they favored revisiting the graduation project requirement, prompting Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor to suggest high school principals be involved in the discussion.

"We are held to whatever standard is handed us," he said. "What flexibility we have, like the graduation project, I think we can look at. These other things we don't have a choice.

"This is a new world. This is a different ballgame for us and it's a different ballgame for everybody across North Carolina, so certainly I think we can always go back and revisit, regroup and look at the pros and cons and decide if we need to go in a different direction."