Special Report

Investing in the Future

North Carolina policymakers say the path to improved test scores and a revamped image of the state’s education system has been easy as following the ABCs.
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 03, 2006 11 min read
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It may have seemed a bit pie-in-the-sky a decade ago to envision North Carolina as a national model for school improvement. But with a history of floundering near the bottom of the 50 states on most education indicators, and a realization that the state’s future prosperity rested heavily on the quality of its public schools, state leaders agreed they needed a bold vision for turning the troubled system around.

To then-Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., that meant clear and rigorous academic standards, school-based accountability, incentives for administrators and teachers to help students meet higher expectations, and a larger state education budget to pay for the changes.


A Small Wonder
Big States, Big Results
The Road Less Traveled
Staying the Course
Investing in the Future
Playing Catch-Up
Table of Contents

In a political feat not easily achieved in the Tar Heel State, Hunt rallied a bipartisan group of lawmakers, as well as educators, business leaders, and citizens’ groups, to commit to a long-term plan for testing students, gauging school performance, improving teachers’ skills and salaries, and intervening in low-performing schools and districts.

“What we lined up here in North Carolina was crucial,” says Hunt, a Democrat who served a total of four terms as the state’s chief executive in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. “We had a fierce, unwavering determination that we’re going to have those high standards and we are going to measure how well we’re doing, and we’re going to report it to the public who pays for it. Then we’re going to remediate” the problems.

Within a few years of passage of the 1996 law, North Carolina began to make the national stir it had hoped for, with students posting dramatic gains on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. North Carolina’s 4th graders gained 28.4 points in math on NAEP between 1992 and 2005—10 points greater than the national gain. The state made a 6-point gain in 4th grade reading during the same period, while in 8th grade math, the state’s gain was nearly 13 points greater than the nationwide improvement.

The state soon was headed ever closer to the national average and beyond on key indicators of student achievement and school quality—a feat unattained by any other state in the South until recently—and was hailed as a leader in the push for accountability-based reform.

North Carolina scored at the national average in 4th grade reading in 2005, and 4 points above it in 4th grade math. It came within 2 points of the national average in 8th grade reading, and exceeded it by 4 points in 8th grade math.

Former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina works at his law office in Raleigh. The nameplate on his desk is a reminder of his efforts to rally political and public support for a new system of school accountability.

“People expect that now,” Hunt says. “They look for those scores to come out on the front page of the newspaper, in color.”

The image of a statewide school system on the rise has persisted through political and economic shifts, including a new governor, turnover in the legislature, the exodus of a long-standing manufacturing base, the growth of high-tech and other business sectors, and the state’s largest-ever budget deficits. Through it all, student achievement has largely improved, teachers’ salaries have grown, and North Carolina’s reputation on K-12 education has shifted from one of disappointment to one of distinction.

The state, for example, now has the highest share of teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in the nation.

The state’s testing-and-reporting regimen meant North Carolina had a smoother transition than most states in meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law four years ago.

North Carolina’s ABCs of Public Education legislation was passed in 1996. It expanded the state accountability program to gauge student progress at individual schools on state tests in grades 3-8. Those measures, coupled with monetary rewards or administrative sanctions based on whether schools met expectations established by the state, put pressure on administrators and teachers to improve instruction and work harder to help all students reach proficiency in core subjects.

“Frankly, there was a need for some pressure” on schools to perform better, says Michael E. Ward, who was the state superintendent of public instruction from 1997 to 2004. “It helped assure that all kids had a fair crack at learning, … that kids in the vulnerable schools and the vulnerable communities had a shot at [academic success].”

‘More in Tune’

At one of those potentially vulnerable schools, Pittman Elementary School in rural Halifax County, teachers felt the pressure earlier than most. As a pilot site for the ABCs program, the school was deluged with additional instructional materials and support services and with visits from state officials a year before the program went statewide in the 1996-97 school year.

“When [the state officials] first came out, you felt like you were going to be under a microscope, … that they would watch everything you say and do, and dictate what you need to teach and how you need to teach it,” says Betty Archibald, the principal and a longtime teacher at the 260-student Pittman Elementary.

Vital Statistics
Public schools2,260
Public school teachers89,988
Pre-K-12 students1,360,209
Annual pre-K-12 expenditures $8.8 billion
Minority students41.7%
Children in poverty22%
Students with disabilities14.2%
English-language learners4.5%

Teachers also worried that the pressures of tests would weigh heavily on instruction, adds Natalie Brooks, a veteran teacher at the school.

Testing has a significant presence at Pittman. Teachers administer their own tests in core subjects based on each week’s lessons; a schoolwide test is given twice a month; the county requires another test at the end of each six-week period to see if students are staying on pace with the state course of study. Toward the end of each school year, teachers begin to review for the state’s end-of-grade tests.

But educators have gotten used to the system. And with test-taking strategies already ingrained in students, teachers have been able to break away from an initial impulse to teach to the tests, Archibald says.

In the end, Brooks says, the state involvement helped her focus more carefully on essential academic content and how well students were learning it.

“I’m more attentive to my curriculum … and I’m much more in tune with looking at [the results of continuous assessments] to address the needs of kids who aren’t doing well,” says Brooks, who teaches 4th grade at the school. “The pressure [accountability] puts on educators is not positive, but it’s good in that it’s making us more aware of trying to meet our children’s needs, from the lower level [of performers] to the higher level.”

By all accounts, the strategy has worked at Pittman, where 97 percent of the pupils are African-American and three-quarters qualify for federally subsidized lunches. The school has made exemplary growth on state tests every year since the late 1990s. In the 2004-05 school year, for example, 94.4 percent of students met at least the minimum standard on state tests in reading and math, up from a little more than 70 percent in 1996-97.

Statewide, 4th and 8th graders have made gains of more than 20 points, including large gains for black and low-income students on the NAEP mathematics tests over the last decade.

The state also made significant gains in 4th grade reading on NAEP since 1992, but the state’s scores dipped in 8th grade reading from 1998 to 2005, while the nation showed no significant change.

North Carolina’s successes have been tempered by challenges: persistent achievement gaps between generally lower-scoring black and Hispanic students and their white peers; technical glitches that rendered some state test scores and school report cards confusing or unreliable; a nearly decade-long school finance lawsuit; and a teacher shortage that has forced the state to ease some certification standards.

“The progress has really been remarkable,” says John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based research organization that has assessed education policy in the state for 20 years. “But after over a decade of this, we’re down to the toughest part of the road.”

Graduation Rates

On NAEP, for example, black 4th and 8th graders scored at least 27 points below their white peers in reading in 2005.

On state tests in 2004-05, just 72 percent of black 4th graders met the grade-level standard in reading, compared with 89 percent of their white classmates, a gap reflected in other subjects and other grades.

Persistent Differences

Although students in North Carolina made achievement gains between 1992 and 2005, gaps between black and white students persist. There has been no significant change in the gaps for 4th graders in reading or for 8th graders in math or reading. But the black-white gap in 4th grade math decreased by 5.2 points, a statistically significant change.


Note: Accommodations were not permitted for students with disabilities and English-language learners in 1992. Data from 1992 are not available for 8th grade reading. Results from 1998 are presented instead.

SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2006

Critics of the state program point to such statistics in arguing that the state has not done enough to raise achievement for all students.

“The [accountability program] clearly presented that we had a problem; … it really identified the achievement gap,” says Sheria Reid, the director of the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh. “But [state officials and education experts] really haven’t sat down and come up with a comprehensive plan for addressing those problems.”

A statewide task force on the achievement gap made a number of such recommendations, Reid says, but the state has failed to act adequately on them.

Moreover, she adds, the accountability plan, which initially focused on school-level results, has put more focus on individual students’ performance, in the form of tighter standards for promotion to the next grade. The changes have led to higher retention rates among poor and minority students and a greater likelihood that they will drop out of school, Reid says.

North Carolina has come under fire for using what the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, describes as “an irrational graduation-rate definition” that significantly underreports the number of students who don’t complete high school. The state traditionally has calculated the percentage of each year’s graduates who earned their diplomas in four years or less, rather than determining what percentage of 9th graders graduated in four years.

“In other words, students who dropped out of high school were excluded from North Carolina’s calculations altogether,” according to a 2005 report by the Education Trust, “Getting Honest About Grad Rates.”

As a result, the state reported a 92 percent graduation rate for the 2001-02 school year, compared with an estimate of just 65 percent according to the Cumulative Promotion Index, developed by Editorial Projects in Education Research Center Director Christopher B. Swanson, that is considered more accurate. For African-American students in 2001-02, the state cited a 92 percent graduation rate—37 percentage points higher than the CPI. For Hispanic students, North Carolina reported a 91 percent completion rate, yet just 54 percent of those students who entered 9th grade graduated within four years under the CPI.

North Carolina Students Raise The Bar

On the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam, North Carolina 4th graders outperformed their peers nationwide. Poor and minority students in the state also demonstrated more knowledge than their peers across the country. This is a different picture from 1992, when North Carolina students were performing at a lower level than the U.S. average.


SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2006

For the current school year, the state has adopted a new definition for its graduation rate that better tracks student dropouts beginning in 9th grade. More broadly, the state is placing new attention on the high school years, as are governors and education departments in most other states.

The move is none too soon for state Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning, who has ruled in the state’s 9-year-old school finance case that the state must commit more resources to its disadvantaged schools. In a May 2005 progress report on the state’s response to his ruling, the judge said that the state was taking positive steps to improve schools, but he characterized the inadequacy of high schools, particularly in the 121,600-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, the state’s largest, as “educational genocide.”

The judge’s assessment, and a growing concern in general over students’ preparation for college and the state’s high-tech industry, have put high school curriculum and testing under the microscope, according to John Poteat, the director of policy research for the Public School Forum.

“The high school issue has picked up a lot of steam,” he says, referring to North Carolina’s participation in several national initiatives to improve secondary education, as well as state initiatives to provide more-rigorous courses and raise graduation standards.

The state is still trying, however, to answer the court’s demands for more funding and other support for the most financially strapped and academically lagging schools.

Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, has pushed for cuts in other public sectors to preserve education funding in the midst of billion-dollar revenue shortfalls. He has expanded the state’s preschool program, continued with class-size-reduction efforts, and pushed for a projected $240 million initiative to improve disadvantaged schools.

The legislature reduced the pot to about one-tenth of the $240 million requested in its 2005 session, but passed a controversial lottery bill that is expected to funnel hundreds of millions more dollars into the $6.6 billion education budget beginning as early as this calendar year.

Judge Manning’s hard-line stance and close monitoring of the state’s education policies are generally viewed favorably by state education officials, who have acknowledged that North Carolina needs to do more for struggling school districts.

“The horsepower [supplied by the judge’s order] will enable North Carolina’s public schools to take the final steps toward reaching breakthrough performance,” says Ward, who argued against the plaintiffs’ claims while serving as state schools superintendent. “It was an interesting paradox to be in a position of fighting a case you hope you might lose.”

And knowing that the courts and the nation are continuing to watch North Carolina’s progress may be insurance against the kind of complacency that observers say could sap the state’s momentum and its commitment to the ABCs program.

“A decade of improvement has been a shot in the arm for this state,” says Dornan, the Public School Forum executive director. “We’ve had tangible results and recognition, and they’ve all validated our investments in education.”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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