RALEIGH, North Carolina — A state judge overseeing North Carolina public schools' mission to offer every child a sound education wants an explanation of "dismal" findings that more than half of students fail to demonstrate they're up to grade level.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. scheduled a court hearing for Wednesday to review a State Board of Education decision changing the definition of whether students have learned what's expected for their grade. He will also look at problems he sees in the two most recent years of standardized test results, Manning wrote in an order scheduling the hearing.
"The bottom line is that the valid assessments of student achievement in North Carolina show that many thousands of children in K-12 are not performing at grade level in multiple subject areas and thus are not obtaining a sound basic education," Manning wrote. "This is an ongoing problem that needs to be dealt with and corrected."
The hearing is the latest in a series Manning has held through the years to test whether the state's education bureaucracy and policymakers are living up to their constitutional obligation to give every North Carolina child the opportunity to have a sound, basic education. The state Supreme Court chose Manning to oversee compliance with its decisions in lawsuits that started in 1995 about school funding in poor parts of the state.
Manning wants explanations from state officials about why tests show that more than half the students tested were behind grade-level expectations. Using standards set by the Supreme Court more than a decade ago, Manning cited test results in reading and math for third- and eighth-grade students as well as math and biology results for all students in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years.
Manning also plans a critical, new look at a revised definition that treats children as on track in their learning progress despite still needing help. He covered the same topic during a January hearing.
The state school board in March 2014 created a new, five-level measure of student achievement. It includes a midrange score that deems students prepared for the next grade level though they may need continuing help from a teacher to perform successfully. That revises the marker the state Supreme Court set in a decision more than a decade ago as showing children were being prepared for college or a career.
"The court views the intended or unintended purpose behind this 'change' was to water down the definition of grade level academic achievement," Manning wrote.
The change was adopted because North Carolina schools revised curricula a few years ago in line with standards that were more academically challenging than what came before, state schools Superintendent June Atkinson said.
"Every time the state Board of Education raises its proficiency standards, we see a drop in student proficiency," she said. "It takes time for students to reach the higher bar."
Manning indicated he wasn't persuaded by that reasoning, which was explained by other school officials at the January hearing.
The change indicates that state school officials have "begun to nibble away at accountability and academic standards so that parents and educators can 'feel good' about their performance despite lagging behind their peers without teacher assistance, Manning wrote.
Manning said he plans to demand soon that state officials "propose a definite plan of action as to how the State of North Carolina intends to correct the educational deficiencies in the student population."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio .