Opinion: Carolina Beat

Scrap ABCs Program to Make Way for Something Better

Two days after Election Day, state officials reported a significant drop in reading scores under the ABCs of Public Education, North Carolina’s testing and accountability program. Between 53 percent and 61 percent of elementary and middle-school students scored at or above “proficient” on state reading tests.

Last year, the Department of Public Instruction reported that between 84 percent and 92 percent of public school students scored at or above proficient on state reading tests. What does the drop in reading scores tell us about the state’s testing program?

The sharp decline in pass rates suggests that the previous 10 years of reading standards have been low. Dr. Lou Fabrizio, director of Accountability Services for DPI, pointed out that, in past years, a student could answer about half of the questions correctly to achieve proficiency on state reading tests. Students could literally “guess their way” to proficiency.

Last year, a student would have had to answer 65 percent to 75 percent of questions correctly to achieve proficiency. This change, not more “difficult” tests, produced the 30 percent drop in proficiency rates on state reading tests.

While the higher standards are a welcome improvement, the state should have raised standards years ago. Unfortunately, state education officials were content to exaggerate student performance year after year.

Since 1992, the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress tests have shown that no more than 32 percent of North Carolina’s fourth-grade students and 31 percent of eighth-grade students scored at or above proficient on the NAEP reading test. Did state officials expect North Carolinians to continue to believe that 88 percent of fourth-grade students and 90 percent of eighth-grade students were proficient in reading, even when the NAEP indicated otherwise? Of course they did.

For years, state officials insisted that North Carolina had one of the best and most reliable testing and accountability systems in the nation. When the state implemented a comprehensive program of education testing in 1996, state leaders declared North Carolina a national leader in implementing state-level accountability measures.

Three years later, former Gov. Jim Hunt declared that “we’re holding our schools accountable for results. Education Week magazine says no state is doing more than North Carolina to put in place real and meaningful accountability measures.” Now state education officials admit that some of these accountability measures have been neither real nor meaningful.

For years, the John Locke Foundation has been one of the strongest critics of North Carolina’s weak accountability standards, but it has not been alone. According to a recent Carolina Journal article, Kati Haycock of the Washington D.C.-based Education Trust scolded state officials for establishing “bend-but-not-break” standards when it set up the ABCs accountability program in the mid-1990s.

Haycock pointed out that the state maintained low standards year after year, rather than continue to raise standards as student performance improved. Haycock concluded that state standards did not “give parents an accurate assessment of how well N.C. students stack up against peers across the country.”

The State Board of Education and DPI have failed to respond to years of criticism of the ABCs testing program’s lack of rigor and comparability. Even with higher reading and math standards, North Carolina has an accountability system that is beyond repair.

It is time to scrap the current system and implement an independent, norm-referenced test that would allow North Carolinians to measure the state’s students against those throughout the country.

Terry Stoops is an education policy analyst with the John Locke Foundation.