If the letter grades North Carolina slaps on its public schools are simplistic, the numbers they’re based on are anything but.
Academic ratings are based on mountains of data that can be sliced several ways. Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – like, I suspect, school leaders everywhere – have a tradition of putting the best spin on everything.
So let me offer a bit of context, as someone who has written enough CMS test-score stories to fill a textbook: This year’s report brings legitimate cause for pride.
That’s true despite the fact that less than half of all students are reading as well as they should, and that third-graders saw a small setback in reading.
It’s true despite the fact that race and income still predict academic success, and that the demographics of CMS schools make those gaps painfully clear.
It’s true despite the fact – no, because of the fact – that CMS’s year-to-year gains and district-to-district advantages are small.
Over the past decade, North Carolinians have gotten seasick watching pass rates surge and plunge with changes in the testing program.
And people who pay close attention know that when CMS has announced one-year spikes that sound too good to be true, they usually have been.
This year we’ve had a few years of testing stability, and we’re seeing exactly the kind of slow, steady progress you’d expect, across North Carolina and in Charlotte.
When CMS leaders note that they’re consistently outperforming Guilford, Durham and Forsyth counties – while winning some and losing some to Wake – it’s not just schoolyard rivalry. In the mid-2000s, I wrote stories about how dismally CMS compared with other districts on virtually every measure. A judge talked about academic genocide and threatened to close CMS high schools because of their low test scores and graduation rates.
So the change is real. It’s significant. And yes, it’s confusing. Let’s plunge in.
When North Carolina started tracking the progress of each year’s freshman class in 2002, CMS graduated just under 75 percent of them four years later. For black students that rate was 66 percent, and for economically disadvantaged students it was 59 percent.
And things got worse: For the Class of 2009, only 56 percent of black students and 52 percent of low-income students in CMS graduated on time. At schools where those students were concentrated, graduation rates tended to hover below 60 percent.
This year CMS logged an on-time graduation rate of 89.6 percent – Superintendent Ann Clark refuses to round up because she wants to actually crack 90 percent in 2017. That topped the state’s 85.8 percent.
For CMS black students, the on-time rate was 89.5 percent. For low-income students it was 85.2 percent. For white and middle-class students it remains even higher.
“That’s exactly how we want to see progress,” Clark said.
Harding High logged the lowest graduation rate, at 76 percent. West Charlotte High, targeted by Project LIFT and countless other turnaround efforts because of previous low performance, hit 86 percent, putting LIFT’s “90 percent by 2017” goal within reach.
What changed? Starting with the Class of 2013, CMS reduced the number of required credits from 28 to 24. That year the district rate went from 76 percent to 81 percent, with about 1,475 seniors coming in under 28 credits.
Online programs, often coupled with teacher support, have helped students who fall behind cross the finish line.
But Clark and her staff say the biggest change has been a focus on working with individual students to make sure they have a plan for life after high school and a course load that will get them there.
“This has truly been a village effort,” Clark said Thursday, noting that teachers, principals, central office staff and volunteers have played a part.
You might think it would be simple to report the percent of students who passed exams ... but this is North Carolina.
In 2013 the state lowered the bar for a passing score, with officials saying some students who had a basic grasp of skills were being labeled as failures. It divided the old four-point scale into five, with a new Level 3 carved out from scores that would have been a high failing score before.
Now the state reports the new level as passing or proficient, but continues to report the percentage of students who clear the old, higher bar as “college and career ready.” The difference between the two tends to run around 10 percentage points. (See the accompanying chart.)
CMS consistently topped state averages on both measures. In elementary and middle school, science scores were significantly higher than those in reading and math, as they have been for years.
Reading, viewed as the gateway to academic success, remains a stubborn hurdle, with pass rates below 60 percent and “college ready” rates below 50 percent in CMS and statewide.
Despite an intensive focus on third-grade reading at the state and local level, CMS saw its reading pass rate for third-graders drop by about one percentage point this year. Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes says tests given at the start of third grade showed a large number of students arrived reading at very low levels and moved up, but not enough to crack the grade-level mark. Meanwhile, the tests show third-graders who arrived with stronger reading skills also moved up, creating a 2-point uptick in third-graders who hit the “college ready” mark.
In high school, English 2 tests proved to be CMS’ biggest setback, with the pass rate declining by 3.5 points. Clark said the district will provide extra support this year for teachers of that subject in hopes of reversing that trend.
The state’s growth rating is arguably the most important bit of data – and clearly the most confusing. People tend to assume “growth” means, say, moving from 60 percent to 70 percent proficiency at a school.
That’s not it. Instead, the state tracks individual students to see how much progress they made during the school year.
Let’s say a fourth-grader arrives reading at first-grade level and ends the year at third-grade level. That child would still count as failing, but would get credit for exceeding the expected one year’s growth. On the other hand, a classmate who started and ended the year reading at sixth-grade level would get high marks for proficiency but drag the school down on growth.
With 52 percent of its schools exceeding the state’s growth target and 34 percent meeting it, CMS outperformed the state and all other large districts by significant margins.
When the state calculates letter grades, proficiency counts for 80 percent and growth for 20 percent. Many say that formula skews the grades toward rewarding schools that have better demographics and more students who arrive ready to learn.
Kimberly Muhich, a former teacher at Oakdale Elementary in west Charlotte, notes the contrast between that school and Grand Oak Elementary in Huntersville. Oakdale’s students mostly come from poverty and arrive below grade level; Grand Oak’s are the opposite. Both schools earned top ratings for student growth, but Grand Oak’s proficiency level was far beyond Oakdale’s.
The result: Grand Oak is an A school, Oakdale a D.
“It’s hard enough teaching in a low income school without being told you’re failing to educate when you’re in fact doing the opposite,” Muhich said.
State exam results
The state gives math and reading tests in grades 3-8 and science tests in grades 5 and 8. Math 1, English 2 and biology are high school exams. Exams are graded on a five-point scale. “Pass” indicates the percent scoring a 3 or higher, considered evidence of “sufficient command” of the material. “Ready” indicates the percent who scored a 4 or 5, a mark of solid or superior mastery.
Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction