November 7, 2008

State reading test is dash of cold water

A new set of N.C. school ratings paints Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a study in contrasts, with some of its suburban schools rating among the state's best while more than half of students at 42 high-poverty urban schools are failing.

A new set of N.C. school ratings paints Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a study in contrasts, with some of its suburban schools rating among the state's best while more than half of students at 42 high-poverty urban schools are failing.

The 2008 ABC ratings, approved Thursday by the N.C. Board of Education, look worse than usual because of a new reading test introduced last year. Officials acknowledged that the old exam, used to rate schools for years, falsely labeled too many children with weak reading skills as making the grade.

If the state had used the old scoring method this year, 86 percent of students in N.C. elementary and middle schools would have been labeled passing. With the new method, it was 57 percent.

CMS had similar results.

Peter Gorman, CMS superintendent, said the old system gave “false hope” to thousands of N.C. students, who were never reading well enough to succeed in college or jobs.

UNC system President Erskine Bowles and N.C. Community College System President Scott Ralls issued a joint statement Thursday praising the state for setting more realistic standards.

“This is the right agenda for our students and our state,” they said.

Statewide and in CMS, minority and low-income students were far more likely to fall short of the tougher standard. That led to dramatic plunges at schools where those students are concentrated.

The state averages reading, math and writing scores to rate schools; in past years, strong reading results tended to pull up the average.

Setbacks for showcases

CMS's Pinewood Elementary, a high-poverty south Charlotte school held up as a success story when its pass rate hit almost 80 percent last year, saw its total fall to 56 percent this year.

That's the same rate reached by KIPP Charlotte, a new branch of a national charter chain known for success with low-income and minority kids.

“We're definitely disappointed. Our goals were higher,” said Principal Keith Burnam, a former math teacher who opened the school in northeast Charlotte last year.

KIPP students attend school 81/2 hours a day and take extra sessions on Saturdays and in the summer. They and their parents pledge to do whatever it takes for them to succeed.

Burnam said that at the start of 2007-08, his fifth-graders averaged early third-grade reading level, based on a national exam. By year's end, they'd made 1.5 years' progress – enough to earn teachers the state bonus for high growth, but leaving many students below fifth-grade level.

They have three more years at KIPP, he noted: “Everybody wants magic in a year, but it's a four-year journey.”

Two school systems?

The 2008 ratings highlight what former N.C Board of Education Chair Howard Haworth of Charlotte calls “two school systems under one banner.”

Many schools in CMS and the region continued to shine despite the tougher test. Thirty of CMS's 159 schools had pass rates of 80 percent or higher. Most are low-poverty suburban schools, along with a handful of magnets.

CMS's Providence Spring Elementary and Davidson IB Middle were in the state's Top 10 for overall pass rates, with 96 and 95 percent. Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, a south Mecklenburg charter school for gifted students, was one of three statewide with 99 percent passing.

Of 29 schools that earned the state's highest rating, based on scores and progress, Union County Schools accounted for six and CMS five, compared with four in Wake County, the state's largest district.

But 46 CMS schools had pass rates below 50 percent. Four are special schools for disabled or at-risk students. The rest are high-poverty schools along a widening urban band running from southwest to northeast Charlotte.

Statewide, 460 of just over 2,400 public schools had rates that low. Of those, 101 – including 13 in CMS – landed on the state's low-performing list because students also failed to show adequate progress.

“It's a moral issue. We have to stop and do something effective about it,” says Haworth, who has long lobbied for more rigorous tests.

More to do

Gorman said many of CMS's efforts will help students get the skills they need.

Those include free prekindergarten for disadvantaged 4-year-olds, intensive reading lessons for children who fall behind in grades K-3 and a special “achievement zone” created to boost performance at 10 low-scoring schools, he said.

He said he plans to expand his “strategic staffing” program of offering bonuses to successful principals and teachers who transfer to low-scoring schools.

Channeling better faculty and more resources to the struggling schools will create tension, he acknowledged, especially as the district gears up for what's likely to be a tight 2009-10 budget.

At a recent school board meeting, member Tom Tate said CMS must reassign students to avoid high concentrations of poverty – as Wake County does – if it hopes to solve its biggest problems. But Gorman noted Thursday that few board members agreed.

Richard McElrath, a retired teacher who has pushed for more diverse schools, says he continues to believe high-poverty schools set students and teachers up for failure. But shuffling students, he said, isn't the answer: “I think busing covers up the problem.”

Short term, McElrath says he agrees with Gorman's focus on improving reading in elementary school, and would like to see CMS expand its special school for students who finish eighth grade lacking the skills they need for high school.

Long term, he said, the city needs “affordable housing in good communities,” which would diversify schools and bolster a better home environment for students.

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