GREENSBORO — Overall pass rates on state tests are up slightly in Guilford County Schools, but the district’s superintendent sees a more encouraging sign in a pattern in the data.
For the 2018-19 school year, she said, all the tested elementary and middle school grade levels showed improvement in every subject for the end-of-grade exams by this same proficiency measure. Elementary students are tested in reading and math in grades 3-8, and science in fifth and eighth grades.
Superintendent Sharon Contreras said the district has not seen this happen in the nearly decade for which they have comparable data. The district is now chasing a series of goals set by the Board of Education with a strategic plan that Contreras said has especially prompted investment at the elementary and middle school levels.
“When you don’t have a well thought out strategy, you see improvement at a couple grade levels; you see it going up and down,” she said. “But when you see all grade levels improve in all three subjects, that’s a result of the board’s strategy.”
That alignment could be promising for key academic goals that relate to how students will do in third-grade reading and ninth-grade math in 2022. However, the district did not make progress on narrowing racial achievement gaps, another key goal.
According to information released Wednesday by the state, 55.1% of district test takers scored at or above grade level. That’s an improvement from the 54.2% who passed in 2017-18, and slightly below the 55.6% who passed the year before that.
Interim Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley thinks curriculum and professional development are likely factors contributing to the improvement. She said principals and teachers point to the training and coaching for principals as helpful.
She also said the district took advantage of a longstanding state provision that allows some students to retake tests.
This year, the district asked students who barely missed cutoffs on reading and science tests if they would like to come back for three or four days after the end of the school year to review key concepts and then retake the tests.
Oakley said they taught the students through special “project-based” lessons aimed at major, highly-tested topics. Like for science, she said, they might have the students do a project on the weather. Afterward, the students took the test again and many improved their scores. This, she said, likely also helped the proficiency scores.
The district saw slight declines at the high school level in proficiency on end-of-course tests in biology and English 2. The two high school math tests aren’t comparable to previous years, according to district leaders.
The district also saw a slight drop — 1 fewer school — in the percent of schools that met or exceeded growth expectations.
Among district schools, 73.5% met or exceeded growth. That means students made a year’s worth or better of expected progress from the previous school year. Growth scores did not include the test retakes, which were only factored into proficiency scores.
Increasing by 50% the number of schools that exceed growth is one of the school board’s five main goals.
One school among those that exceeded growth was Fairview Elementary.
Last fall, leaders with the state’s innovative school district considered proposing that Fairview be taken away from school district management due to persistent poor academic performance. They ended up not taking over Fairview, which raised its school grade from an F to a D and met its growth goal. The school saw an especially dramatic increase in science.
“This is a win for our community, this is a win for the people of High Point, this is a win for our scholars,” principal Abe Hege said.
District leaders still expect the state’s innovative school district to consider taking over some low-performing local schools this year, although the ISD hasn’t contacted them about it yet.
Both Contreras and Oakley pointed out that despite gains, the district made no progress on decreasing the overall racial achievement gap in state testing results. That’s hardly a side concern: decreasing the achievement gap by seven percentage points is another of the district’s five main goals.
“The achievement gap has not closed because everyone increased at about the same level, “ Contreras said. “White students improved and African American students improved. To close the achievement gap we would have to double the rate of improvement for African American and Hispanic students.
“The gap remains the same because everyone is improving. Which is encouraging and discouraging.”