New test data show improvements from the worst of COVID pandemic

Reading proficiency and math scores were up in a recent release of test data for public school students.

Listen to this story (4 minutes)

  • "A third of kids in North Carolina are missing more than 10 days of school per year. This is, as compared to other states in the South, not a good number,” said NC DPI Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Test scores for public school students in North Carolina are showing some improvement since pandemic-era lows, according to new data presented Sept. 6 to the State Board of Education.

Learning outcomes continued to build on recent improvements, with reading proficiency taking a jump across the board. The biggest gains came for fourth graders with a 3.8% increase in proficiency for the 2022-2023 school year compared to 2021-2022. The smallest increase was seventh graders at 0.3%.

The gains are even more pronounced in math. Fourth grades improved proficiency by 4.1% — the highest of all grades — and seventh graders by 1.5% — the lowest of all grades.

“Am I surprised that North Carolina scores on standardized tests still lag pre-pandemic levels? No,” said Dr. Robert Luebke, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “While the general trends point toward improved scores in recent years, the glacial pace of improvement is unacceptable, especially after North Carolina has spent nearly $4.8 billion on COVID relief. Over half that money went to salaries and benefits, and very little too tutoring or spent on proven methods to address learning loss. When North Carolina gets serious about addressing learning loss, test scores will improve. Until then,  I wouldn’t expect any real improvement in test scores.”

The student achievement data is based on an analysis of all end-of-grade and end-of-course tests. The data show the percentage of students who scored at level 3 and above (grade level proficiency), level 4 and above (college and career readiness), and at each academic achievement level.

The previous batch of data showed improvements in test scores since students returned to in-person learning after the worst of the pandemic was over. These new results build on that progress.

As for standardized test scores, those figures ticked slightly down from the 2021-2022 school year. The percentage of high schoolers scoring at least 19 on the ACT clocked in at 41.1% last school year, compared to 41.7% the previous school year.

The graduation rate was steady at 86.4%, down slightly from the 2020-2021 school year, which was an even 87%.

The number of low-performing schools decreased from 864 in 2021-2022 to 804 in 2022-2023, while the number of low-performing districts decreased from 29 to 24.

Despite the good news, there are still negatives.

“We are in year two of COVID recovery,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt. “One of the indicators of that is our levels of chronic absenteeism, which correlate to learning loss and make it harder for students to gain. Last year, we were still at a level of 31%. In other words, a third of kids in North Carolina are missing more than 10 days of school per year. This is, as compared to other states in the South, not a good number.”

“We can’t ignore the reality that we still have students in those schools who are not doing well — they can’t read, they can’t do math. We cannot lose sight of that,” said board member Olivia Oxendine.

Vice chairman Duncan noted that the achievement gaps concerned him the most.

“I remain extremely concerned about the achievement gaps that exist between the different groups. And I don’t see any meaningful improvement in that,” Duncan said.

An advisory panel has proposed a set of recommendations to overhaul the state’s performance grading system for public schools.