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Published in Print: April 5, 2000, as North Carolina Plan Aims To Close Achievement Gap

North Carolina Plan Aims To Close Achievement Gap

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Five North Carolina districts are gearing up to test what may become a new element in the state's widely recognized school accountability program: dividing students into various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic subgroups and then rewarding schools if test scores for students from all those categories improve.

The five-district pilot program, loosely modeled on a feature of Texas' statewide accountability program, is aimed squarely at reducing the wide and persistent gap in academic achievement between most of the state's minority students and their white classmates. It will supplement, not replace, North Carolina's 3-year-old system of test-based rewards and sanctions for schools.

"The way the current accountability program works, schools can mask the performance of historically low-performing groups behind the performance of the dominant population in the school," said Eric Smith, the superintendent of the 100,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, the state's largest and most diverse.

The initiative comes at a time when closing the achievement gap separating white and Asian-American students from their black, Hispanic, and American Indian peers has emerged as a primary concern of educators and policymakers around the nation.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg proposed the plan last year as a way to address what officials there saw as deficiencies in the state's method of rating schools. The legislature authorized the pilot program last fall. Then, last month, the state board of education selected Charlotte-Mecklenburg, as well as the Bladen County, Craven County, Elizabeth-City-Pasquotank, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth school districts, to participate starting in the next school year.

Breaking It Down

The schools in those districts will be judged according to gains in scores on state tests for students from 10 subgroups. Six of the categories will be based on race and ethnicity, two on eligibility for subsidized lunches, and two more on whether the students' earlier test scores in reading and mathematics were low or at least average. Teachers and other staff members at schools that show improvement for all the subgroups will earn bonuses of up to $750 each. Those will be in addition to the rewards the state already offers: up to $1,500 each to staff members at schools where overall student performance on state tests meets or exceeds state expectations. The pilot program is expected to cost up to $4.5 million its first year.

North Carolina's accountability program, while widely praised, has been criticized for failing to address the achievement gap, despite an overall rise in state test scores in recent years. Under the program, school improvement is measured by how students perform as a whole and does not consider how well certain groups of students are doing.

"Statewide and across the board, the average scores are going up, but the gap has remained very persistent," said John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit research group in Raleigh.

In the 1998-99 school year, for example, about 48 percent of black students in grades 3 through 8 scored at or above grade level in reading and math. While that was a jump of more than 15 percentage points since 1993-94, it was still 30 points below white students, and 20 points below the state average.

Social Promotion Ending

Educators, policymakers, and community groups have become more concerned about the achievement gap because of the impending end to the practice of promoting failing students to the next grade to keep them with their age group. Beginning in 2000-01, social promotion in the state will be phased out, starting with the 5th grade.

For that reason, some activists say the pilot program is not aggressive enough.

"We support it and think it's a very positive step," said Greg Malhoit, the executive director of the North Carolina Justice and Community Development Center in Raleigh. "But we wish the entire accountability program would be modified to reflect the performance of minority students."

Given the high cost of offering such incentives statewide and the potential for resistance to the novel plan, the state board chose to experiment with the changes first, said board Chairman Phillip J. Kirk Jr.

Vol. 19, Issue 30, Page 19

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