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N.C. Gets First School-by-School Performance Results

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While many North Carolina school administrators and teachers are winning praise and cash for meeting or exceeding performance expectations on state tests, others are starting the school year scrambling to respond to their students' low achievement.

In the state's first-ever school-by-school performance assessment, some 56 percent of North Carolina's public elementary and middle schools met or exceeded expectations on state tests in reading and mathematics, according to a report on more than 1,600 schools released in August.

The report also identified 7.5 percent of the schools as low performing. High schools will be included in the program next year.

In releasing the assessment, North Carolina joins a rising number of states that divvy up rewards or impose penalties for districts and schools based on student performance on state tests.

North Carolina's testing initiative already has sparked two lawsuits and won both praise and criticism from educators and parents. State officials tempered their satisfaction with the results with vows to boost the performance of more than 700 schools that did not meet their goals.

"The first-year report shows us that while a great number of our schools are making tremendous progress, we have to do more to make sure all of our students are getting the best education possible," Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat, said in a statement.

High Stakes

The report is the first since the legislature approved the ABCs of Public Education program last year, which emphasizes improved academic achievement and accountability.

Educators in schools that meet or exceed performance goals will end up sharing more than $25 million in bonuses under the plan, including up to $1,000 per teacher.

At the 15 worst schools, principals were suspended, teachers will be tested, and the state dispatched assistance teams to draw up plans for improvement.

Even though many of the lowest-performing schools were those with high proportions of poor and disadvantaged students, state and local school officials said some such schools were also among the best.

"The most exciting thing is that the schools that fared best represent a real cross section of who we are as a state," said state Superintendent Michael E. Ward. "They are urban and rural, low wealth and more wealthy."

In all, 529 schools, or 32.4 percent, were acknowledged for exemplary performance, and test scores at some 397 schools improved as expected. Of the 705 schools that did not meet expectations, 122 were identified as low-performing, meaning fewer than 50 percent of their students tested at grade level. Performance goals were based on scores on last year's test.

The state-designed, multiple-choice tests are given each year in reading and math to students in grades 3-8. This is the first year the tests carried high stakes.

Officials with the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teachers' union, praised the push for high standards and the reward system for teachers, but questioned the penalties for principals and teachers struggling to improve schools facing the most challenges.

But state school board Chairman Jay Robinson said that administrators must bear responsibility for school failure. "We are convinced that the principal is the key factor in the success of the school," Mr. Robinson said.

Suspended principals must present the state board with strong plans for improvement or face transfer or dismissal.

Principals and teachers at low-performing schools may be reassigned if they fail to improve over a specified number of years.

Such consequences make George Drake nervous. As the principal at Buncombe Community School, an alternative school for 150 students near Asheville for potential high school dropouts, Mr. Drake fears the test results may not tell the whole story.

"We accept students who have done poorly in school. I don't think it's fair to hold us to the same standard," said Mr. Drake, whose school was deemed low-performing.

But district officials around the state say the new program will quicken the pace of reform and force them to better address the needs of individual schools.

Officials of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are moving swiftly to realign the district's curriculum to better match up with the state tests.

In the district--the state's largest, with more than 86,000 students--74 of 112 primary schools did not meet expectations, and 19 were deemed low-performing.

"There is an awareness that the level of expectation has been picked up," said district Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

Two Lawsuits

Meanwhile, officials of the Wake County district, which includes Raleigh, have filed a lawsuit over the results, which put one of the district's schools among the worst in the state.

Poe Elementary School, a magnet school, is in the midst of phasing out one curriculum and installing another in hopes of turning the school around. The district is seeking to block the school's takeover by a state assistance team.

And parents of students in the Johnston County schools sued in August over a local district policy that prevents students who do not perform well on the state tests from advancing to the next grade.

The suit charges that the policy puts too much weight on one assessment and disproportionately affects minority children.

Johnston County school officials credit the policy with boosting student achievement.

But the plaintiffs maintain that the tests were designed to gauge the progress of whole schools, not individual students.

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