The N.C. Department of Public Instruction is constructing plans to increase rates of student participation in standardized testing after the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter in November warning that schools were at risk of losing funding.
The letter, addressed to N.C. Superintendent June Atkinson, said North Carolina schools could lose their Title I funding if they fail to reach the required 95 percent student participation rate in standardized testing for the 2015-16 school year.
“It’s a requirement of the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act that at least 95 percent of public school students take the required tests in reading, mathematics and science at one grade level in elementary and middle school,” Atkinson said.
Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act, last year to end former president George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. The new act allows states more policymaking power, but the federal government still plays a significant role in education.
If North Carolina fails to comply, the letter said the federal government has the power to withhold all or a portion of the state’s Title I, Part A administrative and programmatic funds.
Matt Ellinwood, a policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, said losing federal funds would be devastating to North Carolina schools.
"These are funds that are generally being targeted towards the lower income students who are at risk, students with special needs," he said. "It’s really the most vulnerable groups of people that receive a majority of federal funding, so if we lose that funding, it would really have a dramatic effect."
Among the lowest participating subgroups in standardized testing were English learners and students with disabilities, Ellinwood said.
School districts have adopted local policies to increase student participation — Lenoir County Schools makes phone calls home to ensure students show up on the day of the exam. But Atkinson and Ellinwood both said the problem requires a different solution.
“In some cases, students with disabilities have health issues and are not available to take tests during the required time periods,” Atkinson said.
And Ellinwood said the problem starts before the day of the test.
“You need to look at whether the students are keeping up and engaging throughout the year," he said. "Is that why they’re not there at the end? Are they falling behind and not have adequate support to catch up so they’re just checked out by the time the test comes along?”
The state spends $400 more per student on average for English language learners and $3,500 more per student on those with disabilities. The money helps provide services those two groups need, like increased one-on-one instruction and specialized materials or special education teachers, respectively.
North Carolina spends less than most other states in these categories, Ellinwood said.
Atkinson said the state now has to develop a plan to address all aspects of the law including test participation.
“Regulations have not been published, but I anticipate that a requirement will be to have local school districts address the issue should there be disparities between number of students and number of tests taken,” Atkinson said.
Formal plans have not been decided on yet, but Ellinwood said the next step for the Department of Public Instruction should be to investigate why English learners and students with disabilities are not participating in standardized testing.
“We want to be involved in trying to make sure that the services are there for that group of students and in fact, that might be the reason why their attendance is lower.”
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