Reading scores are ‘sobering’ for CMS. Is it a problem or an opportunity for Wilcox?

Reading scores fell to a five-year low. The graduation rate dropped. And black students were less than half as likely to earn college-ready scores as their white counterparts.

“This is a sobering score report for us,” Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Wednesday as he presented state data on his first year leading Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

As the school board prepares Wilcox’s first job evaluation, the superintendent used the sometimes-grim numbers to unveil his six-year plan for getting better results. It includes pushing more students into accelerated math courses, confronting inequalities in schools and streamlining what he called a distracting accumulation of academic programs.

It also includes facing the longstanding reality that black, Hispanic and low-income students consistently fall short on academic measures while white, Asian and better-off classmates excel.

“We are a community that’s struggling with issues around equity and access,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference. “We are struggling with issues around race and privilege.”

Some of the bad news in the 2018 report, such as a sharp drop in graduation rates at some high-poverty schools, is a result of changes in state rules. Others, such as the slump in reading proficiency, come from a legitimate year-to-year comparison.

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The most redeeming point for CMS also highlights the district’s greatest challenge: Racial and economic inequalities are not unique to CMS, and they’re worse in many districts.

Wake County, for instance, outperformed CMS when all scores for all students are lumped together. Wilcox noted that he just hired Brian Kingsley from the Wake school system to be Charlotte’s chief academic officer.

But Wake also has lower poverty levels and fewer students of color than CMS. Students in CMS outperformed their counterparts in Wake — and some of the state’s other largest districts — when composite scores are broken out for white, black, Hispanic and low-income students. They also topped state averages.

In other words, it’s not clear that there are strategies to copy from Wake that can even the odds imposed by race and class.

Kids aren’t reading better

North Carolina’s lawmakers have pumped more than $150 million into efforts to boost third-grade reading proficiency over the past six years, as well as laying down rules about testing and promotion. Few would argue with the premise: Kids who can’t read well are hobbled in all classes as they get older.

But progress has been hard to come by, whether gauged by state or national exams. In 2018 56 percent of third-graders in CMS and North Carolina logged a score that indicates basic grade-level skills, while 46 percent of CMS children and 45 percent statewide earned a slightly higher score that’s considered a sign of being on track for college-level achievement.

In CMS, 72 percent of white third-graders hit the college-ready mark, compared with less than 34 percent of black, Hispanic and low-income classmates (the state doesn’t break out results for students who aren’t labeled economically disadvantaged). Results were similar statewide except for white students, where only 59 percent of third-graders had college-ready reading scores.

On Wednesday, Wilcox talked about “initiative fatigue” in CMS, saying the district needs to focus on better work with fewer programs. For instance, he said, CMS has 17 reading initiatives, which he called too many.

But when a reporter asked him to name any reading programs — or any other initiatives in the district — that he has targeted for elimination, Wilcox said he couldn’t, even though he’s been sounding that theme for more than a year and spent months crafting the 2018-19 budget with his staff.

Can math change odds?

Because the state changed the way it tracks middle and high school math scores, a direct year-to-year comparison isn’t valid.

CMS topped the state average for math scores in 2018, with about 60 percent of students in grades 3-8 reaching grade level and 53 percent earning college-ready scores (statewide that was 56 percent and 48 percent, respectively).

Wilcox said Wednesday one of his goals is to roughly double the percentage of CMS students taking Math I in middle school, from 31 percent last year to 60 percent by 2024.

In Counted Out, a 2017 investigative series, The Charlotte Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer used years of state data to show that students of poverty with top math scores were sometimes denied opportunities to take advanced classes, which could limit their access to top colleges and high-tech careers. That year, reporters found, some small, high-poverty K-8 schools in CMS didn’t even offer Math I because there were too few eligible students to devote a teacher’s time to it.

This summer lawmakers reacted to the series by requiring public schools to do more to ensure that top scorers get into accelerated classes.

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Wilcox said Wednesday that pushing more students to complete their first high school math class before they enter ninth grade will require all high schools to beef up their math programs. “Completing Algebra I in high school and saying ‘I’m done with math’ is not something that we can suffer in a 21st-century economy,” he said, using an older term for Math I.

High schools aren’t equal

The new method of calculating graduation rates led to a precipitous drop at several high-poverty high schools that had seen on-time graduations climb in recent years. The new numbers, which give more weight to students who fall behind while moving between schools, emphasize what other test scores have long signaled: Some CMS schools offer much greater odds of college and career success than others.

For instance, the state gives the ACT college-readiness exam to all 11th-graders and reports the percent who scored at least 17, considered a minimum for acceptance to many colleges. In CMS neighborhood high schools, results ranged from 13 percent earning a college-ready score at Garinger, a high-poverty eastside school, to 89 percent at Providence, a low-poverty south Charlotte school. Scores tended to track demographics: Across CMS 86 percent of white students earned a college-ready ACT score, compared with less than 40 percent of black, Hispanic and low-income students.

Wilcox’s goals for 2024 include pushing more teens into rigorous high school classes. Last year 47 percent of graduates had taken at least one college-level class, such as Advanced Placement or courses at Central Piedmont Community College or UNC Charlotte. In six years he wants that to reach 75 percent.

He’s also pushing to increase the percentage of graduates who earn state diploma endorsements from 27 percent to 75 percent. 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.

Spreading the word

Wilcox spent his first year working with the school board to establish broad goals and outlining the scope of the challenges CMS faces. On Wednesday he credited Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes with producing a February report titled “Breaking the Link” that demonstrated how race and poverty are connected to access to the best teachers and most demanding classes.

“What it did was change the paradigm and the mindset of CMS only putting out those things that were incredibly positive about itself,” Wilcox said. “We had to acknowledge some of the challenges we face. ... Quite honestly, I think many of the folks within the organization were troubled by it.”

But addressing those challenges will prove more difficult than naming them.

Wilcox brings a decidedly different style to the job than his recent predecessors, who announced their plans at public events packed with elected officials, civic leaders and education advocates. Wilcox rolled out his 2024 Strategic Plan in a school library with a couple dozen staffers and reporters. No school board members attended.

Communications Chief Tracy Russ said there will be no big event. Instead, he said, CMS will inform people through a series of podcasts, meetings and social media posts. “I call it spreading rather than launching,” Russ said.

With the 2018 data in hand, the board will soon vote on a performance bonus for Wilcox — he’s eligible for up to $28,000, or 10 percent of his base salary — and possibly a contract extension, which may hint at the likelihood that he’ll be in CMS to see the 2024 plan to completion.

Chair Mary McCray and Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek did not respond to Observer requests for comment about the 2018 data and Wilcox’s evaluation.

To read Wilcox’s strategic plan, go to and click the green button at the top of the page.

To see all 2018 data on North Carolina public schools go to

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