By Ben Rappaport
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original version to reflect the percentage of students who tested at grade level.
School districts in North Carolina’s Border Belt improved or held steady in student test scores last school year, a sign of post-pandemic recovery in local education.
But scores in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties last school year were still below those seen before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data released Wednesday by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
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Four local districts – Bladen County Schools, Columbus County Schools, Public Schools of Robeson County and Whiteville City Schools – saw an increase in the percentage of students who were proficient and performed at grade level, the data shows. Scotland County Schools saw a slight dip in proficiency.
Bladen County and Robeson County schools had the biggest jumps in the region, as the districts saw nearly 5-point increases in proficiency.
But all five of the districts in the region fell behind the statewide proficiency rate of 53.6%.
Statewide, the scores increased by about two points from the previous year. The improvement was accompanied by a rising graduation rate and fewer schools labeled as “low-performing” by the Department of Instruction.
Scores across North Carolina were still well below pre-pandemic levels, when the proficiency rate peaked at 58.8% in the 2018-2019 school year.
Test scores are a good starting line for gauging school districts and seeing change year over year. Education advocates, however, warn against using the scores as prescriptive measures because they often stigmatize students of color and lower-income districts.
North Carolina State Superintendent Catherine Truitt has acknowledged the flaws in the grading system and has been leading an effort to revise the performance grading system to utilize measures beyond proficiency and growth.
Data from this past school year overwhelmingly shows poorer districts, like those in the Border Belt, receive lower “performance grades” from the state. More than a quarter of schools that enroll 80% or more low-income students received an F, according to an analysis by the News & Observer. None received an A.
When schools receive a D or F grade, they are deemed “low-performing,” which means the school must “develop a plan for improvement that specifically addresses the strategies the school will implement to improve,” according to state law.
Those grades are based on a formula that relies almost entirely on test scores, with 80% of a school’s grade coming from proficiency and 20% from academic growth. Truitt and other education advocates say the grades should include other measures like improvements year over year, attendance and school morale. Changing the accountability formula would require state legislative approval.
Here’s a breakdown of how local districts scored last school year.
Bladen County Schools
Last school year, 40% of Bladen County students performed at grade level, data shows. The mark is up nearly five points from the previous year and 13 points from the 2020-2021 school year.
Of Bladen’s 13 schools, only four — East Arcadia Elementary, East Bladen High, West Bladen High and Bladen Early College — received a C or above. Seven schools got Ds, and one got an F.
Eight of the schools met or exceeded growth expectations.
Columbus County Schools
Columbus County Schools saw a slight bump in proficiency in 2022-2023 from previous years to 43%.
Columbus County’s 13 schools received zero As, one B, seven Ds, four Cs and one F. Six of the schools – Chadbourn Elementary, Hallsboro-Artesia Elementary, Nakina Middle, Old Dock Elementary, Tabor City Middle and Williams Township – met growth expectations.
No school in the district exceeded growth expectations, according to state measures.
Whiteville City Schools
Like its county neighbor, Whiteville City Schools saw a small increase in its proficiency scores last school year to reach 51%. The jump marks a four-point rise from 2020-2021 when the district had a 47% proficiency rate.
Among the five Border Belt districts, Whiteville City Schools had the highest proficiency rate, but it also has the fewest schools.
Four schools received a C grade. North Whiteville Academy did not receive a performance grade because it is an alternative instruction school.
Central Middle was the only school in the district to exceed growth expectations. Edgewood Elementary and Whiteville High did not meet growth expectations.
Public Schools of Robeson County
The largest district in the Border Belt, Public Schools of Robeson County saw a substantial five-point jump in proficiency from the previous school year to 36%.
Of the district’s 37 schools, 27 met or exceeded growth expectations. Ten schools did not meet growth expectations by state testing standards.
The district received one A performance grade for Early College at Robeson Community College, which also exceeded growth expectations.
Other schools received one B, seven Cs, and 17 Ds.
The district received 11 F grades. Five of those met growth expectations.
Scotland County Schools
The lowest proficiency score in the Border Belt came from Scotland County Schools at 34%. The rate held steady from the 2021-2022 school year.
The district’s 10 schools saw one school — Scotland Early College High — exceed growth expectations and receive a B performance grade.
Eight of the other nine schools received Ds or Fs and did not meet growth expectations. South Johnson Elementary met growth expectations but received a D grade.
A school-by-school breakdown of how each school fared is available through the Department of Public Instruction dashboard. More information about the department’s data methodology is available on its website.