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NC public schools show slim student performance gains as poverty effects tell classroom tale

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — More children are graduating from North Carolina public schools, but only about a third of the 1.6 million students are on track to soak in the knowledge they'll need for the rest of their lives, data released Wednesday show.

About 85 percent of students who entered high school finished in four years, a graduation rate school officials praised as the highest in state history. In 2006, 68 percent graduated, State Board of Education data showed.

On reading and math tests, a little more than four out of 10 students showed that their learning was on pace for their grade level. About a third are on pace for college and career readiness. Both results have improved slightly in recent years.

The figures come three years after the state school board raised learning standards to correspond to real-world needs, state schools superintendent June Atkinson said. It's likely to take five or six years before scores show a notable improvement as older students are pressed to catch up with what they didn't learn when they were younger, she said.

"We have to take these as a snapshot rather than a movie (about) the quality of our students," Atkinson said. "All of us have had bad pictures that caught us at the wrong time."

For the second year, schools themselves were graded. Seventy-two percent earned a C grade or better. Schools again were graded on a curve easier than students must meet, with an 85 out of 100 still earning an A.

School grades again showed a strong link with whether most students come from families in poverty. All but two of the schools landing Fs and 95 percent of those drawing Ds had a majority of students receiving free or discounted lunch. More than 80 percent of the schools collecting As had less than half of their students in poverty.

Charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded but have fewer rules than traditional public schools, showed both better and worse performance. The 142 charter schools measured were twice as likely to earn As or Fs than traditional public schools.

Atkinson recommended three big legislative steps to legislators who are already struggling to craft a state budget that's two months overdue.

Atkinson said test scores would see a big jump if lawmakers spent more on pre-school to prepare poor children, changed the academic calendar which now mandates by law a 10-week summer break for most schools, and expanded summer reading camps now offered to 3rd graders to include kindergarten through second grade.

"Unless we address those," Atkinson said, "we will continue to struggle, especially at the elementary level, to get students reading at grade level."

Atkinson, an elected Democrat, stayed away from debates among Republican legislative leaders over overall spending and teacher funding.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said he fully agreed that poverty was the key factor in depressing overall performance measures.

"If you start off in kindergarten and first grade and never had a book in your house, you never read a book, you never had anybody read to you, you're automatically perhaps years behind," said Forrest, whose post makes him both a member of the state school board and nominal leader of the state Senate. He wouldn't say whether he was urging senators to spend more on education.

Schools are trying to bridge some of the opportunity gaps facing poor school districts with video and digital lessons that put good teachers and challenging lessons in more schools, Forrest said.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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