The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools improved in nearly every category in this year's North Carolina tests, CMS officials announced Wednesday morning.
Overall scores were higher in 22 of 23 areas tested, and dramatic improvement was seen at some of the lower-performing schools where Superintendent Peter Gorman changed principals as part of his Strategic Staffing Initiative.
But while Gorman expressed happiness with the results, he cautioned that the achievement gap -- a difference in scores between whites and minority students, and between low-income and other students -- remained a problem.
And, he noted that deep budget cuts and layoffs of teachers and support personnel will have an impact on scores next year and beyond.
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Gorman said one remarkable aspect of the test score improvement is that it happened while many teachers were worrying about their futures. Talks swirled during the spring, while students were preparing for end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, that CMS and other school systems would be laying off teachers to deal with budget cuts caused by the recession.
"All of this happened at a time of great uncertainty," Gorman said, referring to the anxiety felt by many educators. "Staff members wondered, 'Will I have a job with the system next year?'
"Yet we stayed focused."
For the first time this year, the state required tens of thousands of students who failed their exams the first time to try again -- and allowed schools to count students who passed the second time toward their overall performance. In CMS, about 14,000 students who failed reading, 13,000 who failed math and 5,000 who failed science were required to take the retest. Thousands more who scored "well below grade level" on those tests could take them again if their parents requested it; all told, CMS gave just over 48,800 retests.
CMS released totals that showed both before and after students took the retest.
The CMS numbers improved in both areas.
Michael Evans, spokesman for Wake County Schools, said his district won't release results until the state does, probably in August. He said the retesting requirement for elementary and middle schools is expected to bump up pass rates statewide.
"What we're hearing is everybody across the state is going up," he said.
While the retesting is boosting results, Evans said Wake officials aren't sure it's worth the staff time and expense. "Plus you're putting kids who aren't academically successful under additional stress," he said. "It's part of the conversation: What is the cost of retesting and is it worth it?"
There were more winners than losers in this year's test score results, Gorman said.
Some of the system's higher-performing schools fared very well, but so did some schools -- such as West Mecklenburg and West Charlotte high schools -- which have been among CMS' most troubled places in recent years.
Yet the gap between white and African American students widened in some areas.
For example, while 80 percent of white students scored at Level 3 (grade level) or Level 4 (above grade level) on the end-of-grade science test for grades 3-8, only 34 percent of African American students were at grade level or above. Gorman said his staff believes some African American students from low-income families do not arrive at school with the same experiences -- visits to museums, for example -- that whites from more-affluent families enjoy.
Gorman said budget cuts and the resulting layoffs will make it difficult for CMS to post such improvements again next year.
"I can't see any way that the reductions we made won't impact our students," Gorman said. "But we have to make it work. We have to work harder and faster. It is going to be a difficult year."