Last week, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released the 2018-19 Consolidated Data Report.  The lengthy report contains data and information related to public school and district crime and violence, suspensions, expulsions, corporal punishment, student reassignments for disciplinary reasons, alternative learning placements, and dropout rates.  Although geographic and demographic disparities exist, the news was overwhelmingly positive, and rates are moving in the right direction.  I believe that it is the manifestation of a deliberate focus on improving school culture for the benefit of public school children in North Carolina.

Consider these statistics from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction presentation of the Consolidated Data Report to the State Board of Education:

  • The rate of reportable crimes has decreased for the third year in a row
  • The number of long-term suspensions for ninth-grade students has decreased by 63% since 2014-2015
  • The number of students whose combined lengths of multiple short-term suspensions [measured in total days] is at its lowest point since the 2014-2015 academic year
  • The number of black students expelled has decreased by over 50% since 2014-2015
  • Since the 2014-2015 academic year, there has been a sharp decrease in the number of long-term suspensions for students in each exceptionality category
  • Since the 2014-2015 academic year, while there has been a sharp decrease in the number of short-term suspensions, there has been a steady increase in in-school suspensions
  • While the North Carolina high school dropout rate for the 2018-2019 academic year decreased only a few points from the 2017-2018 dropout rate, since the 2009-2010 academic year, the dropout rate has decreased 46% [Note: The DPI presentation identifies the wrong school year, and I have corrected it here.  – TS]

The last bullet point does not capture the remarkable decrease in the statewide dropout rate. Last year, just 2.01% or 9,512 students dropped out of school in grades 9 through 12 (with grade 13 included for districts with early college programs).  The 1998-99 dropout rate was 6.78%. In other words, over the previous two decades, North Carolina public schools reduced the statewide dropout rate around 4.8 percentage points or 70%.

Dropout rates, Leandro, and Hoke County

Since the early 2000s, the courts have used a variety of outcome measures to evaluate the state’s compliance with the requirements of the Leandro v. State of North Carolina school funding case. Scores from standardized tests remain the primary measures of student, school, and district performance because of the breadth and depth of the information that it provides.  Yet, some scholars point out that there is a weak relationship between test scores and post-secondary education and employment outcomes.  Moreover, educators rightly assert that test scores do not capture the totality of their work.  Employing multiple measures is a sensible way to address both concerns.

Before the appointment of Judge David Lee to the Leandro oversight role in 2016, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning monitored compliance with the case for nearly 20 years. In a lengthy 2001 report, Memorandum Of Decision Section Three, Judge Manning highlighted student performance in Hoke County in considerable detail.  He selected Hoke County because the Hoke County Board of Education was a plaintiff in the case, and then-Hoke County student Robert Leandro was the first plaintiff named.

Manning’s focus on Hoke County allowed him to consider the ways that the public schools in that county and others like it did not deliver an “opportunity for a sound basic education” to all students.  On some measures, Hoke County Schools continues to struggle.  Last year, 53% of Hoke County students were proficient in math, compared to a 59% statewide average.  Likewise, 52% of Hoke County students were proficient in reading, compared to 57% for the state.  The good news is that 10 of the district’s 13 schools met or exceeded their student performance growth targets in 2019.

More than just test scores

But Manning did not limit his analysis to test scores.  He wrote that the “dropout rate is one factor that should be looked at in evaluating the performance of schools.”  And dropout rates in Hoke County are lower than even the historically low state average.  Last year, 35 high school students or 1.46% dropped out, a decrease from the 2.22% rate in 2014-15 and the 7.6% rate recorded 20 years ago. Hoke County’s 9.53% dropout rate in 1999-00 was its highest during the last two decades.

Three years after Manning issued the third memorandum, the N.C. Supreme Court in Leandro II affirmed a multiple measures approach.

In the realm of “outputs” evidence, we hold that the trial court properly concluded that the evidence demonstrates that over the past decade, an inordinate number of Hoke County students have consistently failed to match the academic performance of their statewide public school counterparts and that such failure, measured by their performance while attending Hoke County schools, their dropout rates, their graduation rates, their need for remedial help, their inability to compete in the job markets, and their inability to compete in collegiate ranks, constitute a clear showing that they have failed to obtain a Leandro– comporting education.

Have the courts considered “their dropout rates, their graduation rates, their need for remedial help, their inability to compete in the job markets, and their inability to compete in collegiate ranks?” The answer is no.  The report that was written for the state as part of the Leandro case, Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina by California-based consulting firm WestEd, fails to highlight dropout rate trends and other student performance metrics.  Dropouts and dropout rates are mentioned in several of the reports that accompanied the WestEd report, but none acknowledged North Carolina’s plummeting dropout rate.

As such, perhaps Judge Lee should ask plaintiffs and defendants to provide additional information to the court before he initiates the implementation of the WestEd report.  The exclusion of relevant data is inexcusable.