EDUCATION: Test scores reflect Lee schools' struggle under new standards
Under measures imposed by the state's new Common Core curriculum, only two Lee County public schools have more than 50 percent of the student body achieving "proficient" grade level scores, according to standardized test scores released Thursday.
Both local and state education officials predicted that scores would plummet under Common Core, which was implemented last year and which educators say is not only more difficult, but also has a higher standard for students to be considered at grade level. And that predicted drop is exactly what happened.
In Lee County's 16 public schools, 40.2 percent of students tested at or above grade level under the new system, compared to 44.7 percent of students statewide. Local schools ranged from a high of 67.5 percent proficiency at Lee Early College to a low of "less than 5 percent" at Warren Williams Alternative Elementary School — where the state didn't release the exact results because doing so might violate students' privacy.
Despite the drop in proficiency levels from previous standardized tests, though, about two-thirds of the local schools did still meet growth — meaning that individual students scored as expected, based on a variety of factors. No schools exceeded their expected growth.
The criteria for meeting growth vary widely from school to school. Bragg Street Academy, an alternative school, met growth with 7 percent of students at grade level while West Lee Middle School beat the district average with 43.7-percent proficiency but did not meet growth. The other schools not meeting growth were Broadway Elementary School, J.R. Ingram Elementary School, and both Southern Lee High School and Lee County High School.
Teachers interviewed Thursday about the new curriculum and the tests weren't shy about speaking to the difficulties of Common Core — both on educators, to learn and implement a whole new curriculum, and on students to suddenly face new and harder assignments.
"Now, there's no straight equations," SanLee Middle School sixth-grade math teacher Cynthia Wicker said. "It's all word problems, and two- and three-step word problems at that. ... It's not just teaching them math skills. It's teaching them how to apply those skills."
She and fellow SanLee teacher Kim Stuart, who teaches eighth-grade language arts, both said their students haven't fought back too much despite the tougher material.
"They understand that it's going to help their chances of getting into the university they want because they're doing more difficult things and so they'll be more prepared to take advanced classes in high school," said Stuart, who, for example, now has her students reading nonfiction pieces such as civil rights speeches or articles on Jim Crow laws to use while writing book reports on the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Angela Spurlin, a fifth-grade English and social studies teacher at Deep River Elementary School, said her students have pushed back some — mainly against the fact that they're now being asked to read more carefully to find specific facts to back up their writing on topics as varied as the Dust Bowl or how scabs are formed.
"I do have to explain that if it's easy, you're not learning," Spurlin said. "If it's easy, I'm not doing my job. ... It's not just going to be multiple choice [on tests] anymore."
Carol Chappell, the district's director of K-5 instruction, said teachers are generally nurturing types. It makes them good teachers, she said, but it can also sometimes lead to struggling students being allowed shortcuts out of pity. Her middle/high school counterpart Tina Poltrock agreed.
"Teachers would try to make it easier on students by presenting material in a way they wouldn't necessarily have to read it," Poltrock said. "But now they have to be able to read and write very well. ... If you read something and you don't understand it, you don't just stop. You have to go back and use strategies to figure it out. We want to give them that structure because you're not going to get it in college."
Chappell said there's about a two-year gap between what's considered grade level for high school seniors across the country and what's expected of college freshman, but that Common Core should narrow that gap.
Lee County Superintendent Andy Bryan said it does seem logical that Lee Early College — a high school whose students all take a heavy course load at Central Carolina Community College in addition to their regular classes — had the county's best results, although he added that there are other intangibles in the mix that affect every school and student.
"I think with the community college and the partnership there, that certainly helps," Bryan said. "I don't know that's the whole answer because wherever you are, whatever level, it comes back to hard work."
As for the alternative schools, where fewer than one in 10 students tested at grade level, Bryan said the testing data alone doesn't tell the whole story because tests at those schools were only taken by students who weren't in their regular schools by the end of the year.
"I think these tests sort of unfairly paint them in the wrong way, if that makes sense, because students transition in and out," Bryan said. "I'm not sure it's a fair assessment of the hard work that happens there."
Moving forward, Bryan said the goal is to bring scores up significantly. This year's initial results serve as a baseline, he said, and while there aren't specific plans in place yet because the data is still being analyzed, Bryan said there will be a constant, ongoing discussion on how to best prepare students for both the tests and the real world.