Gorman: Tougher reading test will make scores dive

Expect reading scores to plunge, especially for minority and low-income students, when the state unveils new tougher-to-pass test scores next week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Peter Gorman said Wednesday.

“We are going to see a precipitous drop in CMS and the state,” he said. “I think you're also going to see the achievement gap widen in reading.”

Tuesday night, Gorman's staff revealed preliminary results for five struggling middle schools where most students are minority and poor. Only 20 percent to 31 percent passed the new exams in 2008, compared with at least 60 percent at each school under the old testing system in 2007.

The district knows how all schools fared, but won't release scores until the N.C. Board of Education approves them next week. State officials have warned of double-digit drops in pass rates, but haven't given specifics.

CMS's five-school sneak preview came as part of a report on efforts to improve those schools, as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law is designed to pressure schools across America to improve reading and math skills of disadvantaged kids, including minorities, the poor, disabled and students who are learning English.

The N.C. reading score plunge doesn't signal that students or schools have suddenly become weaker. Instead, it reflects an acknowledgement by state officials that the old test was too easy to pass, giving a false impression that thousands of students who squeaked by were doing fine.

Those students are more likely to be poor and minority, Gorman said Wednesday – confirming a pattern that played out in 2006, when the state made a similar adjustment to the math exams.

The anticipated plunge in reading pass rates poses tough questions about how many eighth-graders will be held back at the end of this school year, Gorman said. N.C. law encourages schools not to promote students past certain “gateway grades,” including eighth, until they have mastered grade-level reading and math. In reality, educators say, many move up to high school deficient in those skills.

“Many of my kids, when they come here, they're behind because of the social promotion,” West Charlotte High Principal John Modest told a Leadership Charlotte group that visited his school recently.

At Wilson Middle in west Charlotte, where the new tests show 72 percent of students read below grade level, the biggest problem is comprehension, said Principal Eric Ward, who took that job in January.

Only a few low performers can't decipher the words. Most can, but get little meaning from the text – often because they're not interested, Ward said.

“The text is about dead people and places that are not Charlotte, and some of them have not been out of Charlotte,” Ward said.

He said he and his teachers are figuring out ways to relate academic subjects to the students' lives. For instance, students who glaze over on a lesson about World War I might connect by writing about conflict in their own lives.

“First, there has to be the interest,” he said. “Once we have the interest, we can teach the skill.”