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NC judge weighs improvement at poor schools

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Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. hears on whether state officials are meeting their duty to give every child a chance at a sound, basic education. (Bianca Spinosa, WNCN) Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. hears on whether state officials are meeting their duty to give every child a chance at a sound, basic education. (Bianca Spinosa, WNCN)
RALEIGH, N.C. -

A Superior Court judge charged with holding North Carolina officials responsible for giving every child a sound education began reviewing new test results on Wednesday that show a minority of public school students are performing at levels that would put them on track for college and a successful career.

Judge Howard Manning Jr. called a two-day special hearing beginning Wednesday to review year-end test results from this spring and other measures that will help determine whether the state is meeting its responsibility under state Supreme Court education rulings. Taxpayers are spending $7.9 billion this year to educate about 1.5 million public school students.

The new READY Accountability measure of student progress, released for the first time last week, started holding students to a higher standard. Students now are being tested for whether they have learned enough at their age to be considered on track to a career or college after graduation. Previous end-of-grade tests measured whether students had learned enough for their grade level.

But Manning noted that out of more than 107,000 third-graders, just 45 percent were considered proficient readers under the new, tougher exams. Just 26 percent of the state's nearly 2,500 schools met all targets, which included math, science and reading scores, attendance, graduation rates, and performance on a college-entrance exam.

"Those seniors who graduated last year and were not proficient, the race is over for them, isn't it?" Melanie Dubis, a lawyer representing poor school districts, asked the state Department of Instruction's testing expert.

"Yes," Tammy Howard said.

The judge praised a state law the General Assembly adopted last year requiring that third-grade students prove they're able to read well before being promoted to the next grade. Those who are falling behind get intensive summer instruction to see if they can catch up before they are held back.

"It addresses everything that I have been griping about in grades K (kindergarten) through 3 since 2009, when I realized the children can't read and that's why they can't do very much when they get to high school," Manning said. "I give the bill an A-plus. The problem I see is the enforcement."

Manning also will review the state's efforts to turn around the school system in Halifax County, one of the state's poorest and lowest-performing districts. A composite score of student performance in the school district was two-and-a-half-times lower than the statewide average. Manning ordered the state's intervention in Halifax County schools in 2009, calling the persistently poor test results a form of educational genocide.

The new statewide test results show that students in Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties — four of the five counties that are the focus of the long-running education funding case Manning is overseeing — still lag way behind the statewide average.

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