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North Carolina Schools Raise Stakes for Test

High school students aren't stupid. They know which tests count and which don't.

So this month, North Carolina schools are offering a mix of extra credit and potential penalties to cajole students into trying their best on an exam that doesn't mean much to them but is crucial to their schools.

State-mandated tests given to 10th-graders this month are a make-or-break measure of success for schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Only one of every three high schools in North Carolina met the federal standard last year, the first year that schools were subject to the new law. In the Triangle, five of 32 high schools in Wake, Durham, Johnston and Orange counties reached the goal.

"This is something that is required by the federal government, but it doesn't mean anything to the kids," said Dana King, principal of Millbrook High School in Raleigh. "It's what the public will use to decide how good a school we are. And if that's what they're using as a measure, I want it to reflect what's happening here."

Educators hope that by adding incentives or consequences, they will motivate students to do better, and as a result, improve the showing of their schools.

They also want to encourage students to show up for the test. The government requires 95 percent participation from each school's 10th-graders and within groups of those students identified by race, poverty and educational disabilities. Last year, schools faced a problem getting enough students tested.

Just for taking the exam, called the High School Comprehensive Test, students in Wake high schools get an extra point added to their fourth-quarter grade averages for every class, including math, art and physical education. So, for example, a student with a 92 classroom average in English would receive a 93, the difference between a B and an A.

Students would get two points added to the grade average in each class for passing the two-part test in both reading and math. For some students, that could mean the difference between passing and failing.

"A lot of people might need those extra points," said Marquise Moore, a sophomore at Millbrook High.

Doing well on the test could be the difference in raising his geometry grade from a C to a B, the 15-year-old said. "I think a lot of students will take it more seriously."

Posters about the test in the halls at Millbrook are more persuasive than a do-or-else order: "10th graders: Earn extra points for all your classes. Take the North Carolina Comprehensive Test on April 14 and 15."

Promotion requirement

In Chapel Hill-Carrboro this year, the stakes are higher. The test is now a promotion requirement for 10th-graders. Students must pass to advance to 11th grade.

Those who fail will get extra chances before the end of the school year.

"Kids who just blow it off will have to go to summer school," said Dave Thaden, principal of East Chapel Hill High School.

Offering financial perks last year failed to get the attention of students, Thaden said, so the school board made the tests a promotion requirement. Incentives last year included reduced parking fees, discounted passes to athletic events and meal vouchers for school festivals.

Thaden said that some students had taken a casual attitude about the exam.

"The kids looked at it as an opportunity to Christmas-tree an answer sheet because it didn't mean anything," Thaden said, describing how some students simply created patterns on multiple-choice answer sheets rather than read and answer the questions.

He said that schools had no choice but to raise the stakes. No Child Left Behind requires that students be tested in reading and math at some point in high school but does not specify the test.

State education leaders settled on the comprehensive test, which was developed in the 1990s to measure the performance of high schools under the state's ABCs accountability system.

"The state put us in an untenable position," Thaden said. "They decided to use a measure that has no relevance for students."

'Want to look good'

Unlike elementary and middle schools, most high schools in North Carolina aren't subject to penalties under the federal law. That's because few high schools receive federal Title I funds for low-income students. Still, school leaders say they want their schools to be seen as being successful.

"You want to look good," said Kathy Chontos, principal of Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. "It's a matter of making sure that this measurement accurately reflects what you are doing."

Chontos said she hopes the extra points for students will make a difference.

That has been the case in Johnston County, where four of the six high schools last year met the standard under the No Child Left Behind law. Johnston high schools have counted the 10th-grade exam as a test grade in English, math or related subjects as long as the test has been required.

Patricia Hester, executive director of instruction and accountability for Johnston schools, said high schools have taken a number of steps to improve student achievement, but tying consequences to the 10th-grade tests also makes a difference.

"If you're taking a test and it's not going to count, it's just human nature not to take it seriously," she said. "Students know they're accountable."

That kind of psychology seems to be working at Millbrook High, where students finished the two-day tests Thursday.

"I would take it seriously regardless," Ashley Hudson, 16, said this week. "But I'm going to try even harder. I think it's good that they're giving extra credit."

Staff writer Todd Silberman can be reached at 829-4531 or todds@newsobserver.com.

— Todd Silberman
News & Observer


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