Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools outperformed most other large school districts on national exams last year, including a first-place ranking in eighth-grade math, according to a report released Tuesday.
Tuesday's report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card, compares fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores for 27 urban school districts. For the first time there's another North Carolina district in the rankings: Guilford County.
The results highlight success in CMS, but also illustrate the complexity of the challenges all districts face.
Consider that first-place math ranking.
With 41 percent of its students rated proficient — that is, showing competency in a subject that is often viewed as a gateway for success in college and high-tech careers — CMS tops the nation's public schools (33 percent), North Carolina (35 percent) and the average for all cities in the urban list (27 percent). The next-highest district was Austin, Texas, at 38 percent proficiency. Guilford had 31 percent proficient.
As some skeptics always note, CMS has an edge in the rankings because it remains more diverse than public schools in cities such as Chicago, Detroit and New York. About 30 percent of CMS students are white and do not come from low-income homes — groups that generally score higher on standardized exams.
Racial breakdowns make the CMS edge more pronounced, but also highlight the disparities.
For instance, 70 percent of CMS white students rated proficient in eighth-grade math, far outstripping white students in the nation (43 percent), North Carolina (47 percent) the urban districts overall (49 percent) and Guilford County (48 percent). Only in Atlanta did the white students fare better, at 72 percent proficiency.
Black students, who make up 39 percent of CMS enrollment, outperformed every other district on the eighth-grade math exam. But the results are bleak compared with those for white counterparts. CMS black students hit 25 percent proficiency, the only district to top 20 percent. The national average for black students was 13 percent, for North Carolina 14 percent and for the urban districts 11 percent. Guilford came in at 16 percent, second among the urban districts.
CMS proficiency on eighth-grade math was 24 percent for Hispanic students, 22 percent for low-income students and 55 percent for nonpoor students — better than counterparts in most districts, but not by as large margins.
CMS Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said the report shows that all districts face "a national challenge and a national problem," and that no one has gotten close to solving it.
"It's challenging to outperform (other districts) but to feel so dissatisfied with our current performance," Barnes said. "We need to do better. Our kids need to do better."
Why take the tests?
All states give their own reading and math tests, but it's impossible to make comparisons between states — and year-to-year results within a state often fluctuate wildly when officials revamp the exams.
The NAEP, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and introduced in 1990, provides a consistent measure of core academic skills.
The district list is a more recent addition; CMS was among the first when it started participating in 2003. Participating districts must give the exam to a sampling of students that represents the district. Not all schools administer the NAEP on any given year, and no individual school results are released.
Guilford made the decision to join in 2015, but this is the first time it has results to post. Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said Guilford will use the results as a benchmark for new goals and plans. No other North Carolina districts take part.
"Going forward, we can more specifically identify areas needing attention or improvement,” Contreras says. “In addition, we can measure ourselves against other districts comparable to demographics and size.”
CMS is also working on a new strategic plan, and recently released a "Breaking the Link" report that highlighted the challenges facing black and Hispanic students, especially in schools with high concentrations of disadvantage.
Fourth-grade math dip
CMS fourth-graders also outperformed counterparts in most districts. But it was one of only four districts that showed a significant drop from 2015, the last time the exams were given.
Fourth-grade math proficiency was 46 percent, down from 51 percent two years earlier. Within CMS that ranged from 74 percent of white fourth-graders proficient to 29 percent of black and low-income students.
Proficiency was 42 percent in Guilford and North Carolina, 40 percent for the nation's public schools and 31 percent for the urban districts.
Mixed results in reading
CMS fourth-graders outperformed counterparts in most other districts in reading as well, with 40 percent proficient.
That compares with 39 percent in North Carolina, 37 percent in Guilford, 35 percent nationally and 28 percent in all urban districts.
CMS saw no statistically significant change in reading scores at either grade level compared with 2015. Neither did most districts and states.
With 30 percent proficiency in eighth-grade reading, both CMS and Guilford fell below state (33 percent) and national (35 percent) averages. Both districts topped those averages for white students (51 percent proficient) but landed at or below state and national averages for black, Hispanic and low-income students, where fewer than 20 percent were rated proficient.