UPDATED: Graduation rate, test scores rise for Durham Public Schools
Report: Robinson "terminated" at Durham DSS, less than two years after appointment

A bit of shine comes off Durham public school test data

Durham public school system officials released some negative but expected student test results on Thursday. They also backed away from a key achievement claim that they had made when announcing test scores on Wednesday. 

Preliminary results under a federal school assessment program showed that only seven Durham Public Schools met the federal government’s adequate yearly progress standard. 

These results, released Thursday for the recently concluded 2010-11 academic year, were down from 2009-10, when 14 of the district’s schools made AYP. 

That kind of dip wasn’t confined to Durham, though. The News & Observer reported Thursday that just 22 of the Wake school district’s 163 schools made adequate yearly progress. Last year, by comparison, 61 of 159 schools made progress under the standard. 

Why the drops? It’s certainly not that the students, teachers and schools in North Carolina, or in either of these two districts, got markedly poorer between 2009-10 and the school year that just ended. 

Instead, the major factor is probably something that made these kinds of results entirely foreseeable. The goals rose, and by significant margins. 

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Most testing systems divide student bodies into several groups (technically called subgroups): black, Hispanic, multiracial, white, poor, limited English proficiency, and disabled, among others. A single student will belong to one racial or ethnic category and may belong to multiple additional categories due to family poverty or other factors. 

Each student who takes a state-mandated end-of-grade test (EOG, for grades 3-8) or end-of-course test (EOC, for grades 9-12) gets a “level” or score of 1, 2, 3 or 4. A 3 or 4 means the student passed and is deemed to be proficient. If a certain fraction of students of a given type are proficient in a certain subject, that group is deemed to have met that particular adequate yearly progress proficiency goal. 

If every single one of a school’s groups meet its proficiency target, the school is deemed to have made adequate yearly progress. In general, the fewer groups a school has, the easier it is for the school to made AYP. 

For some years, up through 2009-10, 43.2 percent of students in a group had to pass EOG reading tests for that group to be deemed proficient. The corresponding thresholds were 77.2 percent in EOG mathematics, 38.5 percent in EOC reading and language arts and 68.4 percent in EOC math. 

This year, however, the group proficiency thresholds or targets rose. That left the minimum group passing standards at 71.6, 88.6, 69.3 and 84.2 percent, going in the same order as above. Those hikes ranged from 11 to 31 percentage points. 

It’s not hard to imagine why those increases would hamper schools under the stringent AYP standard, which local educators have taken to describing as “one fail, all fail.” 

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So that’s the news from Thursday. Let’s take a closer look at some of the 2010-11 data that was released Wednesday. (All these numbers, it should be noted, are provisional pending State Board of Education approval next month.) 

By the district’s count, 26 of 29 elementary schools, nine of 11 middle schools and four of 10 high schools had expected growth or high growth in their student bodies. That means that in 39 of 50 schools, students fared as well or better on mandatory tests in 2010-11 as they had in previous years. 

In 12 of the 50 schools, the student bodies had high growth, which essentially means that there were at least three students whose newest test scores equalled or exceeded the previous year’s for every two students whose scores dropped compared to the previous year’s. 

Those percentages work out to 78 percent of schools making growth and 24 percent making high growth. 

But records from 2009-10 — available publicly, but not referenced or provided by district officials — show that 86 percent of schools made growth (44 of 51) and a third made high growth (17 of 51) that year. 

In a nutshell: This year’s student growth numbers weren’t as good as last year’s. 

Some of that is attributable to retests at the high school level. Retests were allowed for the first time in 2009-10. This year, numbers were expected to fall a bit. Typically, retests make a splash in scores in their first year, after which scores tend to fade at least a bit. 

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Although there were fewer Durham schools making growth, nine local schools made gains that will advance them in the district’s four-tiered Design for Accelerated Progress system. Three schools will move from the lowest category, Tier 1, to Tier 2; five schools will move from Tier 2 to Tier 3; and Spring Valley Elementary, the site of Wednesday’s announcement, will jump from Tier 1 to Tier 3. 

But the district didn’t highlight a phenomenon that offset some of those gains. Six schools, all at the elementary level, will drop one level. 

Easley, Hillandale and Mangum will fall from the Tier 4 to Tier 3, in each case losing fewer than seven points from the student passing rate. Lakewood and Parkwood will fall from the third to the second tiers, while C.C. Spaulding will drop to Tier 1. Again, no decrease in the student passing rate exceeded seven points. 

This tier system was created by the district and is mainly used to identify struggling schools that need the most support. Tier 1 schools, for instance, get weekly visits from area superintendents. 

Asked why these declines hadn’t been mentioned at Wednesday’s press conference or in the material distributed there, an official said that the district’s focus was mainly on schools in the lower tiers. 

The district wanted “to highlight some of the efforts that had been taking place in our Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools and show the progress that’s been made in those schools,” said Lewis Ferebee, the DPS chief of staff. 

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That brings us to what was perhaps the most important claim of progress made Wednesday. District officials mentioned repeatedly that the number of low-performing schools would drop from five to two or fewer in 2011-12. 

Chewning Middle and Southern High schools are provisionally designated low-performing for the coming school year by the state Department of Public Instruction. 

A low-performing school is one in which fewer than half of students are deemed proficient on mandatory state tests and in which the student body fails to make expected academic growth. 

The low-performing label is applied the year after the test data comes in, so a school that met the criteria this spring would have the label for 2011-12. A school that had the label during the year just ended would have “earned” it in 2009-10 testing

The list of low-performing schools from the just-concluded year showed two, not five: Chewning and Lowe’s Grove middle schools. 

The district’s claim to have reduced the number of low-performing schools by 60 percent — from five to two — appears to be based on the number of low-performing schools that the district had for the 2009-10 year (based on 2008-09 tests) and will have in 2011-12 (based on the most recent tests). In other words, that 60 percent reduction in low-performing schools happened in 2009-10 and kicked in last summer, just as Superintendent Eric Becoats was taking office. 

However, district officials never clearly distinguished between labels that were active in 2009-10 and those that were active this past year. One table released Wednesday specifically stated that Durham Public Schools had five low-performing schools this past year. 

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When pressed for an explanation, Ferebee and a district spokesmen said that the system is looking into the matter and would provide more information in the future. Neither one specified when a clarification would be available. We asked the state Department of Public Instruction Thursday afternoon for help resolving the matter; we’ll post an update when a response comes. 

Unfortunately, all this leaves perhaps the signal achievement trumpeted Wednesday — which led off the headline of the press release handed out then and was mentioned multiple times in speech and print at the event — in doubt. And many of the other positive signs revealed Wednesday were modest at best. 

It’s worth noting that Chewning may end up shedding its low-performing label, according to Ferebee. If that happens, it would presumably leave Durham with just one low-performing public school in 2011-12. Should that come to pass, it would mean that over a two-year period, the number of low-performing schools would have fallen fairly dramatically. And Becoats and his team would have contributed to that. 

Regardless of how that plays out, there remains much work for Durham educators to do, as Becoats, Ferebee and others acknowledged this week. Hopefully, when test scores are released in the summer of 2012, there will be much clearer signs that the district is indeed heading in the right direction. 



Thank you! This was very thorough and you did an excellent job explaining all the factors at play in determining AYP.


Matt, thank you for asking the hard questions to the district and critically explaining all these numbers! GREAT job! Wednesday I found it troubling that Easly, Mangum, Hillandale, and Morehead had drops in the range of 6 to 10 points. (10 being Morehead.) These elementary schools are some of the traditionally strong schools that ATTRACT new families to DPS and Durham. I hope Dr Ferebee's comment about focusing on improvement of Tier 1 & 2 schools was only in context of the presentation and that the district critically analyzes what is causing a drop at these traditionally strong performing schools.

Page McCullough

Matt, thanks for the fine grain analysis. We really need it.


I've always had a problem with the EOC tests because I knew people who failed them but are pretty successful individuals. YES...they are Durham products AND successful. You would think that our schools produce nothing but failures with all of the talk over the years.

I am a product of the Durham City/County/Public Schools...failed a writing test before - not sure why...you get out of the system what you put into it for the most part. I also had a bunch of people around me who pushed me to succeed including an Aunt who was a 3rd grade teacher.

In order to get at the root cause of subpar performance, we need to raise kids expectation of excellence from an early age. That is why pre-school education is important. Most kids that underperform start off behind the 8-ball.

Which brings me back to the EOC test...they are not the greatest barometers of future success. What if I make a bunch of mistakes in high pressure situations? You don't want me running a nuclear plant but there are a bunch of other jobs that I can do. There are many people that are just bad test takers...they suffer anxiety attacks during tests. That does not mean that they do not know the information.

Whenever I'm tutoring people, I try to get them past there fears before I even start talking about the material...

Todd P

Tina - I think what you are seeing with the Easley/Hillandale/Mangum score drop is the impact of charter schools - specifically Voyager Academy - skimming the cream off the top of their student bodies, and resulting in lower overall scores.

Having had a kid or 2 at Easley for 9 years now, I know some parents with means who have pulled their kids from there to go to Voyager out of an irrational and misplaced fear of sending their kids to Brogden or Carrington later.

The impact of charter schools on scores at DPS schools should be taken into consideration, especially as charters continue to grow here.

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