RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt gave lawmakers a breakdown of just how much the reading scores have grown for the youngest students in North Carolina.
On one of the slides in her presentation, the numbers were right.
But the labels were wrong.
And that may have sent the wrong message about the progress those students are making.
The chart presented by Truitt last week to a House select committee on education appeared to show the gains made by the state’s kindergartners and first graders over three academic years from 2018-19 to 2021-22 exceeded the national average.
In other words, the chart claimed the kindergarteners in the 2018-19 school year were 27 percent proficient while the ones in the 2021-22 year were doing significantly better — 67 percent.
But it turns out that chart was mislabeled: It actually measured the progress they made from the beginning of the 2021-22 school year to the end of that year.
What the chart should have said instead was that 27 percent of the state’s kindergarteners were proficient at the start of the most recent school year. By the end of the year, it climbed to 67 percent.
The same goes for the first graders.
Truitt’s overarching point is that North Carolina is doing better than the rest of the nation, and the numbers do bear that out.
That jump of 40 points among kindergarteners is bigger than it was observed nationally, where it went from 36 percent at the beginning of the year to 60 percent at year’s end.
But the question must be asked: What happened?
Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Blair Rhoades said it was a simple mislabeling of the chart in the presentation — “The 2018-19 should have been 2021 and it was mistyped on the slides,” she wrote in an email — and an education expert from Duke agreed with her.
“I don’t think I would put intention behind that mistake,” said Clara Muschkin, an associate research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke.
The percentages on the chart were accurate, Rhoades said, even if the labels were wrong.
“The improvements shared that NC’s students made was accurate,” she said. “The difference is that students made those big improvements over one year (2021-22) and not over three years.”
Still, the initial and corrected numbers do say two very different things.
The message the mislabeled numbers sent is that the kids who were in kindergarten or first grade four years ago performed poorly compared to those who were in those grades last year.
But the corrected numbers simply show North Carolina’s kindergarteners and first-graders made that progress over the course of the school year — which is the whole point of education — than those across the country did.
“North Carolina students started in the beginning of the kindergarten year… with less degree of proficiency as compared with the national results,” Muschkin said. “And therefore their growth was likely to be greater. You start at a lower level, you’re more likely to increase.”
Muschkin says the flub “also probably has sparked interest and some elaboration on what the corrected numbers mean.
“And I would encourage the superintendent’s office to explain it because I think a lot of people would be very interested,” she said.