On September 6, the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction released state test scores and other accountability measures for the 2017-18 school year.  Compared to the year before, there were only a handful of notable changes in student performance and certainly no meaningful progress in closing achievement gaps.

Graduation, growth, and proficiency rates

While graduation rates have increased by 18 percentage points since 2006, last year’s rate of 86.3 percent represents a slight decrease from 2017.  Graduation rates range from a low of 68.3 percent for English language learners to a high of over 95 percent for academically gifted students.  While graduation rate increase over the last dozen years is good news, troubling remediation rates and controversial credit recovery courses suggest that quantity is not necessarily an indicator of the quality.

In addition, 72.7 percent of North Carolina schools met or exceeded their academic growth goals, which was a one percentage point decrease compared to the year before.  Academic growth measures (also called “value-added” analyses) are indispensable because they capture year-to-year learning gains and are not correlated to student demographics.  Alternatively, a school that meets or exceeds growth expectations may still enroll few students that score at or above grade level, so it is important to pair growth measures with proficiency rates.

To determine proficiency, state testing analysts place student test scores on a five-tier scale adopted by the N.C. State Board of Education a few years ago.  Achievement levels 1 and 2 are below grade level.  Grade-level proficiency applies to scores that reach achievement level 3 and above.  Achievement levels 4 and 5 indicate grade-level proficiency and career and college readiness.”

Across all subjects and grade levels, 58.8 percent of North Carolina students earned grade-level proficiency on state end-of-grade (EOG) and end-of-course (EOC) tests, that is, Level 3 and above. A much lower percentage, 49.2 percent, met the career and college ready standard.  Simply put, around half of North Carolina students are not on track to be prepared to further their education or enter the workforce after graduation.

There were slight differences in the percentage of elementary and middle school students earning grade-level proficient scores. For example, 57.3 percent of students in grades 3 – 8  were proficient in reading, and 56.1 percent were proficient in math last year.  While math enjoyed a year-to-year uptick, reading proficiency dropped slightly.  Since 2014, math proficiency has increased by 5.1 percentage points.  Despite millions invested in Read to Achieve and other early literacy efforts, reading has gained a single percentage point.

Of course, statewide figures obscure the performance of student subgroups.  Nearly 42 percent of economically disadvantaged elementary and middle schoolers are proficient in reading.  In math, nearly 41 percent of low-income students reached proficiency.  Shockingly, only 39.7 percent of black students in elementary and middle school grades are proficient in reading, and 36.5 percent are proficient in math.  Within both subgroups, far fewer earn scores that reach levels of achievement that ensure college and career readiness.

Charter schools

Charter schools have more freedom than district-run public schools, but they are still required to participate in the state testing program.  In the past, N.C. DPI analysts included tables that compared school performance grades for charters and districts.  This year, they did not include them, so I conducted the analysis using school performance grade data.


Charter vs. District Schools

Charter Number Charter Percent District Number District Percent
A 15 9% 170 7%
B 55 33% 661 28%
C 60 36% 1010 43%
D 30 18% 442 19%
F 8 5% 83 4%
Subtotal 168  














Alternative Schools 3 90
Insufficient Data 2 10
Deaf and Blind Schools 0 3
Lab Schools 0 2
Regional School 0 1
Grand Total 173 2472

Both growth and proficiency rates are included in school performance grades.  Proficiency rates (and other performance metrics) account for 80 percent of the grade, while growth makes up the other 20 percent.  Those measures are combined and scored on a 15-point scale.  Overall, charter schools had a higher percentage of A and B schools, a lower percentage of C and D schools, and a higher percentage of F schools.  (Note that these are preliminary calculations and thus are subject to change.)


Measures like graduation rates, growth measures, and proficiency rates have limitations.  For example, University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene finds little evidence of a strong, consistent relationship between test scores and life outcomes.  Greene writes,

I do not mean to suggest that math and reading test results provide us with no information or that we should do away with them. I’m simply arguing that these tests are much less reliable indicators of quality than most policy analysts, regulators, and policy makers imagine. We should be considerably more humble about claiming to know which teachers, schools, and programs are good or bad based on an examination of their test scores.

While it is unwise to dismiss the latest round of state achievement data, it’s critical that we keep them in perspective.  Moreover, we should be mindful that some outcomes are not what they appear to be.