West Charlotte and Harding high schools saw dramatic plunges in the percentage of students passing state exams in 2012, newly released state data show.
Only 44 percent of the West Charlotte students who took algebra I, English I and biology last year passed the state exams, and only 38 percent of students performed as well as the state predicted they would. That performance would have landed West Charlotte on the states low-performing list, but the school fell short of the requirement to test at least 95 percent of students who took those courses.
At Harding, a traditionally high-performing magnet that merged last year with the low-scoring Waddell, 64 percent passed exams and 48 percent made expected progress.
Those results make West Charlotte and Harding the lowest-performing high schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Both were omitted from last weeks state ABCs of Public Education report because they failed to test enough students. That requirement is designed to prevent schools from padding pass rates by keeping weak students away from the exams that are used to rate schools.
Only one other school statewide a Banner Elk charter school serving abused children was blocked from an ABC rating because it tested too few students.
At West Charlotte, about 200 students who took the three courses failed to take the required exams, according to a spreadsheet provided by the state Department of Public Instruction. Last week, CMS declined to disclose information about performance at West Charlotte and Harding, citing the states decision to deny an official rating.
Students at high-poverty schools often require incentives, reminders and calls to parents to be persuaded to take exams, especially if theyre on the brink of failing, said Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts, who became the supervisor of West Charlotte in March. She said she didnt know details of what went wrong last year, but she has hired an instructional accountability officer to oversee data and testing at the school moving forward.
Shelton Jefferies, West Charlottes principal for the last three years, resigned at the end of the school year to take an administrative post in Union County Schools. He did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
CMS has hired John Wall Jr. from a Raleigh magnet school to take over at West Charlotte.
I have had to say to myself, As of July 1, Ive got to close the door on the old West Charlotte, Watts said.
Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark agreed that some schools face perennial challenges getting students to take tests, but said its unusual to have two high schools fall short of the required 95 percent. She said CMS became aware of the problem in mid-June, as exams were scored. Harding Principal Alicisa Johnson sent staff out to try to find students and contact families, even after the last day of school, Clark said. Harding had about 95 students fail to take the test.
West Charlotte gains reversed
In 2011, West Charlotte had a 68 percent pass rate, with 63.5 percent of students making expected growth. The pass rates are not directly comparable, because the state eliminated exams from some higher-level courses in 2011-12.
But the 2012 scores represent a reversal after years of efforts to boost performance at the high-poverty school. In 2005, a judge presiding over a statewide lawsuit on adequate public education accused West Charlotte and a handful of other CMS high schools of academic genocide and threatened to close them if pass rates didnt improve.
The West Charlotte results also indicate a large number of students lack the basic skills for high school, as the public-private Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation) launches a $55 million, five-year push to transform West Charlotte and the eight schools that feed into it. The goal is a 90 percent graduation rate and significantly better academic results by 2017. In 2012, West Charlotte logged a 56 percent on-time graduation rate, up from 54 percent in 2011.
Mitzi Porter, last years West Charlotte PTSA president, said she had gotten no information about problems with academic performance or testing. This is the first time Ive heard about it, she said Monday.
Hundreds of educators from the Project LIFT schools gathered at Johnson C. Smith University on Monday to launch a week of training for the coming school year. Topics included working with children of poverty, connecting with families and using technology. Watts told them her administrative staff will outline a rewards for performance program that is deeply rooted in literacy.
Watts told the teachers, some of whom received recruitment and retention bonuses paid with private donations, that their job is to breathe hope and vision into these kids and this community.
Harding a different school
Hardings slump was more predictable. As a magnet offering International Baccalaureate and math-science specialty programs in 2010-11, Harding logged a 94.5 percent proficiency rate, among the best in CMS. About 63 percent of students made expected growth that year a measure designed to gauge whether schools are making gains with all students, from those who arrive behind grade level to those at the top.
During a sweeping review of schools that included concerns about a budget crisis and efforts to improve academics, CMS voted in 2010 to close about a dozen schools in 2011-12, including the struggling Waddell High. Hardings math-science magnet moved to nearby Berry Academy of Technology. Harding, which kept its IB magnet program, nearly doubled its enrollment, taking in neighborhood students from Waddell and West Mecklenburg High.
Hardings graduation rate was virtually unchanged at 88 percent in 2012. But students who fell behind before they arrived at Harding dont count in the schools tally. Most struggling students get held back in ninth or 10th grade.
Clark said Johnson will continue as principal at Harding, and will have a better feel for the dynamics of working with the mix of magnet and neighborhood students.
Behind the missing students
For the past year, CMS has grappled with questions about the reliability of its data. The district withdrew and revised its 2012 school progress reports after the Observer found errors and an internal review uncovered even more flaws.
The new report poses questions about what happened to students who should have taken state exams.
The state spreadsheet shows almost 1,600 West Charlotte students should have taken the algebra, freshman English and biology exams last year, but only 1,393 did, for a testing rate of 87 percent. Students who didnt take the tests were counted as failures in calculating pass rates, said Kenneth Barbour of the N.C. DPI accountability department. However, students who had passed algebra in eighth grade were added as passing scores.
If all the missing students had passed the exams, West Charlotte would have logged a pass rate around 58 percent still the lowest-performing CMS high school. However, both Watts and Clark said the students most likely to skip tests are those who were failing the class or on the path to dropping out.
Harding is listed as having given 1,486 tests, not quite 94 percent of approximately 1,583 students taking the courses.
On July 9, state officials notified CMS that the two schools had violated the 95 percent requirement and invited the district to present any compelling evidence that the violation was caused by factors beyond the control of the school. CMS sent no response, state officials said.
This year, a low rating or a failure to qualify for a rating has little concrete effect. Faculty used to be eligible for bonuses of up to $1,500 if students showed strong growth, even if pass rates remained low. Being barred for insufficient testing would have eliminated the bonus option. But the state stopped paying those bonuses when the recession hit.
After 15 years, North Carolina is eliminating its ABCs of Public Education rating system. Next year it will launch a new Ready system, with different exams and schools graded from A to F.