CMS outperforms other big districts, but results could mask underlying disparities

J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, pictured here, was built with 2013 bond money and opened last August. The last school to be built from that bond issue, called the Rea Farms Relief School, is scheduled to open in August 2020 to help relieve overcrowding in southern Mecklenburg County.
J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, pictured here, was built with 2013 bond money and opened last August. The last school to be built from that bond issue, called the Rea Farms Relief School, is scheduled to open in August 2020 to help relieve overcrowding in southern Mecklenburg County.

Student performance in reading and math in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has largely stayed the same, with scores on a national test showing no significant changes since it was last administered, according a report released Wednesday.

Similar to 2017, CMS’s average scores outperformed most large school districts in both subjects and at both grade levels. The district also outperformed the national average in all tests except for eighth-grade reading, where it fell one point short.

The report from the National Assessment of Education Progress, frequently referred to as the nation’s report card, compares fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores between 27 large school districts, as well as at the state and national level.

CMS earned the highest average scores of any of those districts in eighth-grade math and tied for first in fourth- and eighth-grade reading. Superintendent Earnest Winston said the district will continue to focus on early grade literacy and aim for higher percentages of proficiency.

“We are pleased to see our students leading in the NAEP assessments,” Winston said in a statement. “But we are not satisfied.”

Unlike state-administered tests, the NAEP results can be used to compare states and districts. And NAEP results can also be compared over time, while constant revamping of state-administered tests makes year-to-year comparisons impossible even within one region.

The NAEP, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, provides a consistent measure of core academic skills, although officials caution that scoring “proficient” on the test does not mean the same thing as grade-level proficiency on state end-of-year tests. The NAEP proficient rating is an “aspirational” goal meant to convey mastery of a challenging subject matter, Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, said during a call with reporters.

CMS outperformed or matched the state and national public school proficiency rates in every measure except eighth-grade reading, where it lags one percentage point behind the state level. For fourth-grade math, 49% of CMS students achieved proficiency, compared with 41% statewide, while in eighth grade, CMS outdid the state’s 39% rate with 41%. For fourth-grade reading, CMS students were 39% proficient compared with 36% statewide, while Charlotte eighth-graders achieved 32% proficiency compared with a statewide 33%.

Statewide, scores dropped between 2017 and 2019. This year’s state reading results were below what they were in 2011, before the state launched Read to Achieve, a major effort to boost early literacy.

The largely flat trend in CMS reflects a broader national phenomenon, where scores have not significantly improved in the past 10 years.

“We seem to have hit a plateau since 2009, and there does not appear to be a lot of progress in the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” Lesley Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which determines the standards for the tests, said during the press call. “It’s frustrating and difficult to understand given the work of dedicated teachers, education leaders and policy makers.”

While CMS continues to outperform other large districts, the scores can mask underlying discrepancies in student performance. Unlike many large districts, which often broke apart into smaller ones in response to integration, CMS’s countywide presence means that it still includes whiter, more affluent areas where students have better access to veteran teachers and advanced classes.

For instance, in fourth-grade reading, 68% of white students in CMS attained NAEP proficiency, compared with 24% of black students and 23% of Hispanic students. Those patterns held true across both tests and grade levels. Still, CMS generally outperformed the large city and national average across subgroups.

Frank Barnes, the district’s chief equity officer, said that while it was encouraging to see the district staying ahead of its peers, CMS still has work to do.

“What’s discouraging is the disparity across our jurisdiction,” he said. “To see our black, Hispanic and low-income students are outperforming national average, it says we’re doing something right for our students, but it’s not enough.”

CMS has made closing that gap one of its top priorities. The district recently formed a 41-person equity committee, meant to serve as the board’s watchdog in the district’s efforts to undo the connection between concentrations of poverty and student outcomes.

Carr said that the flat trendline for national scores could be masking increasing discrepancies among students, where high-performers are continuing to grow while students who are struggling are attaining worse outcomes.

“Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest performing students are doing worse,” Carr said. “In fact, over the long term in reading, the lowest performing students — those readers who struggle the most — have made no progress from the first NAEP administration almost 30 years ago.”

Annie Ma covers education for the Charlotte Observer. She previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Chalkbeat New York, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Oregonian. She grew up in Florida and graduated from Dartmouth College.