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Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as N.C. Launches Broad Assault On the Achievement Gap

N.C. Launches Broad Assault On the Achievement Gap

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With more than $100 million in proposed funding and a report card that would track achievement by race, North Carolina school leaders are stepping up efforts to close the persistent test-score gap separating the state's black and Hispanic students from their white counterparts.

The measures are part of a 10-point plan that state schools Superintendent Michael E. Ward outlined last month before a group of 2,000 educators meeting in Greensboro.

He said the state also plans to: create a permanent advisory committee on raising minority achievement, require every district to draft an annual plan for narrowing racial gaps among its own students, and mobilize teams of experts to work with schools in which African-American and Hispanic students are lagging academically.

"Sometimes, when the community hears us talking about closing the gaps, the presumption is that we're holding some students at a standstill while others are catching up, but that's not the model that we're talking about," Mr. Ward said last week. "Think of a graph where you have two lines heading upward and converging."

Out in the Open

North Carolina is in the vanguard of states that have moved the achievement-gap issue up on their policy agendas this year. While test scores have been on the rise among all groups of children since the state launched its new accountability system three years ago, the racial disparities haven't changed much. And the accountability system, which rewards schools for raising test scores, has made the differences more obvious.

Last spring, only 45 percent of the state's black students, 52 percent of its Hispanic enrollment, and 50 percent of American Indian students performed at grade level on both the reading and mathematics tests required by the state. The passing rate for white students, in comparison, was much higher—79 percent.

Two months ago, the state school board adopted final plans for a pilot program to test a change in the accountability system that would reward schools based on whether test scores were improving for every racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic subgroup.

The program, borrowed from Texas' much-publicized accountability system, is set to begin in five districts in the fall and might eventually expand statewide. ("Lifting Minority Achievement: Complex Answers," April 5, 2000.)

"They are doing more than most states, and over time they have gotten more focused," Jim Watts, the vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, said of North Carolina officials. "They're doing some of the right things that over the long run are going to make a difference."

The growing interest of state educators in the issue was evident at the April 27 meeting on raising minority achievement. When the annual conference was first launched four years ago, about 175 educators, almost all of them black, attended, state officials said.

This year, the conference drew even the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

The more than $100 million that Mr. Ward hopes to put into the achievement-gap campaign comes mostly from proposed increases over the next two years in existing programs that serve students who are behind grade level, English-language learners, and special education students.

In addition, the schools chief said, the state will make $4 million in federal aid available to schools this year to help start their efforts.

Closing the achievement gap has become more urgent in North Carolina this year with the impending end of "social promotion," the practice of allowing failing students to advance to the next grade.

Beginning with the next school year, such promotions will be phased out for the state's students, beginning with 5th graders.

Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 23

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