Grad rates plummet at several CMS high schools. Here’s what it means.

At Harding University High in west Charlotte, the on-time graduation rate plunged from 77 percent to 58 percent.

West Charlotte High, where a rising graduation rate was the most visible result of a $55 million Project LIFT philanthropic investment, this year’s rate fell 15 percentage points, to 73 percent. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ rate dropped too, though not as dramatically.

As the state released its 2018 school performance data Wednesday, the most jarring numbers come from a change in how the state tallies graduation rates. In the past, high school students who fell behind and then switched schools didn’t count toward either school’s tally. The reasoning was that a school receiving such a student — for instance, a junior who had failed most classes and earned very few credits at a previous school — shouldn’t be held accountable for getting that teen across the finish line on time.

But starting this year, the school where that student completes the fourth year must count that student as a graduate or a nongraduate. The state also made it harder to remove from the tally students who simply go missing — those believed to have moved out of state or even out of the country. If they can’t be documented as being somewhere else, they count as a failure to graduate on time.

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Across North Carolina the rate barely changed, from 86.5 percent in 2017 to 86.3 percent in 2018. The CMS rate fell from 89.4 percent to 85.1 percent, while Wake County’s rose from 88.5 percent to 89.1 percent.

In Charlotte, the impact landed hardest on high-poverty neighborhood schools, which tend to serve transient and struggling teens, and on specialized high schools that cater to students who aren’t doing well in other settings. Eight CMS schools saw graduation rates fall by more than 10 points this year: Garinger, eLearning Academy, Harding, Performance Learning Center, Vance, West Charlotte, West Meck and Olympic High’s TEAM advanced manufacturing school.

Harding, a neighborhood school with an International Baccalaureate magnet program, was the only CMS school to land below 60 percent this year.

Meanwhile, 13 CMS schools had graduation rates that remained higher than 90 percent: Ardrey Kell, Berry Academy of Technology, Butler, Cato Middle College, Harper Middle College, Hawthorne, Hough, Levine Middle College, Mallard Creek, Northwest Arts, Providence and Olympic’s math/engineering and biotech schools.

Districtwide, CMS had a 93 percent graduation rate for white students, 90 percent for Asians, 84 percent for African Americans, 74 percent for Hispanics, 80 percent for economically disadvantaged students and 63 percent for students with disabilities. Those rates dropped for all groups, but the largest drop was for black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students, who make up the majority of the CMS student body.

The CMS rates are above this year’s state average for black and white students but below for Hispanic, Asian and disabled ones. CMS and North Carolina students who are economically disadvantaged have virtually the same graduation rate in 2018.

Which gives true picture?

The new graduation rates are bound to spark fierce debate: Were the old numbers inflated? Are the new calculations unfair? Above all, what will it take to give all students a better shot at adult success?

Skeptics had noted that even as graduation rates rose steadily at high-poverty schools, test scores continued to show that many students at those schools appeared to lack the skills needed for college or careers.

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CMS leaders have acknowledged the need to do more to ensure that all diplomas are meaningful. They’ve expanded career-tech programs to prepare graduates for skilled trades. They’ve opened more academic magnet programs and increased the number of college-based high schools that let students earn free credits — even an associate’s degree — while working toward a diploma.

Ironically, the boom in options may entice motivated, successful teens away from neighborhood schools that are struggling with low ratings, outside challenges and a bad reputation.

State education officials and CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who took office last summer, have also reviewed a controversial credit recovery program, which allows students who fail high school courses to take online classes and earn credit. Wilcox concluded there was no systemic abuse, but CMS took measures to ensure consistency and monitor exams given through the program.

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Wilcox said Wednesday his goal is to get CMS back to 89 percent by next year, even with the new rules, and to reach 95 percent in the five years after that.

In his six-year strategic plan, presented Wednesday, Wilcox also set a goal of having 75 percent of CMS graduates earn a state career or academic endorsement. That recognition signals that graduates have taken a series of rigorous courses in career-technical education or global languages, and/or that they’ve met requirements for two- or four-year colleges.

This year only 27 percent of CMS graduates earned endorsements, a measure that CMS has started tracking even though it’s not part of the state report.

What about LIFT?

No high school has received more scrutiny than West Charlotte High. Even before local corporations and foundations targeted it for change in 2012, the school had been the focus of a succession of turnaround plans, all aimed at reversing low test scores and graduation rates.

Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation) emerged as a five-year public-private partnership to reinvent West Charlotte and its feeder schools, with a goal of making them all as successful as the best in CMS and around the state. Donors pledged about $50 million for a project that would have ended in 2017, but was extended through the end of this school year.

Even as it became clear that test scores at the LIFT schools were nowhere near the promised 90 percent proficiency — many remain among the district’s lowest — the fact that West Charlotte’s graduation rate rose from 51 percent before the project began to 88 percent in 2017 gave backers a measurable success point.

Supporters noted that Project LIFT pioneered the creation of an off-site academy to help older students who have fallen behind earn diplomas — a move that is unlikely to boost on-time graduation rates but can improve those young adults’ prospects. Those academies have been expanded to other CMS high schools.

This year the private LIFT board is working with Wilcox and the CMS board to figure out which lessons from the project should be preserved or taken districtwide.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms