By Ann Doss Helmsahelms@charlotteobserver.com
Charlotte-Mecklenburg students are better at math than counterparts at most urban districts, according to today's release of test results from “the nation's report card.”
CMS fourth-graders were first among 18 districts scored on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, and eighth-graders were second only to those in Austin, Texas.
The national exams, authorized by the U.S. Education Department, have been given since 1969 to compare states' performance on several academic subjects. In the past seven years, results have been broken out for a growing number of urban districts; CMS remains the only one in the Carolinas.
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The tests show 86 percent of last year's CMS fourth-graders and 72 percent of eighth-graders had at least basic skills in math. Forty-five percent of fourth-graders and 32 percent of eighth-graders were rated proficient or advanced.
“We're doing better than most. That's a good thing,” Superintendent Peter Gorman said. “It's not good enough, though.”
Today's math scores, like previous NAEP reports, bring a mix of good news and bad. CMS kids rank at or near the top in both grades, not just on overall averages but on comparisons for black, white, Hispanic, low-income and non-poor students.
CMS was the only urban district where fourth-graders topped the national average – but also one of two where fourth-graders have made no significant gains since 2003.
CMS eighth-graders' math scores were the same as in 2007, but had nudged up from 2003. That was the pattern for students in most districts.
In both grades, CMS's black, Hispanic and low-income students trailed far behind white and non-poor classmates, and those gaps show little sign of closing. For instance, 91 percent of CMS eighth-graders were rated “basic” or higher, compared with 63 percent of Hispanics and 60 percent of blacks. Among CMS eighth-graders who get lunch aid for low-income families, 58 percent showed at least basic mastery vs. 85 percent of students who don't.
In past years, CMS has had far more white and non-poor students than any other district, leading critics to say it's not a valid comparison for the countywide urban/suburban district. This year NAEP added results for Jefferson County Schools in Louisville, Ky., the only majority-white district in the group of 18. Jefferson County, which is about three-quarters the size of CMS, has a slightly higher poverty level (about 60 percent vs. 50 percent). Its scores were well below CMS's.
CMS and Austin were the top two performers at both grade levels, with more than 80 percent of fourth-graders and more than 70 percent of eighth-graders scoring “basic” or higher. Austin also combines urban and suburban schools, Gorman said. It has a poverty level around 60 percent, on the low end of the NAEP group.
Detroit, added this year, dragged the bottom, with more than two-thirds of fourth-graders and three-quarters of eighth-graders failing to earn even a “basic” rating. Detroit is a city district where about 80 percent of students are poor and about 95 percent are minorities.
In addition to providing comparisons with other cities, the national exams provide a better gauge of long-term progress than North Carolina's state exams, where results rise and fall with changes in testing.
For instance, the state said 91 percent of CMS fourth-graders were at or above grade level in math in 2003. In 2007, after the state made the tests harder to pass, that fell to 68 percent. Last year it was back up to 80 percent, in part because the state required many students who failed once to try again.
NAEP shows very little change between those years (the national test is not given every year). A grade-level score on the N.C. end-of-grade exam seems to roughly correspond to a “basic” rating on the national test.
Gorman said basic math skills aren't good enough for students to compete in college and the job market: “I think this is another reason why we need national standards and national assessment.”
In CMS, 1,500 fourth-graders and 1,300 eighth-graders took the NAEP math test last year, a sampling chosen to represent the full student body. Students don't get individual scores, and results aren't reported by school.
Read the full report at http://nationsreportcard.gov.