Education

School grades highlight success and struggles in CMS and North Carolina

Sixth-graders check out their new laptops at Piedmont Middle School, an uptown CMS magnet that got a new A+ rating.
Sixth-graders check out their new laptops at Piedmont Middle School, an uptown CMS magnet that got a new A+ rating. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

From graduation rates that are strong and rising to reading scores stalled at dismal levels, North Carolina’s annual report on school performance data brought the usual mix of good and bad news for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

In an effort to simplify the data, state legislators mandated school letter grades last year. This year CMS grades nudged up, with 25 of 160 schools going up a grade while 21 dropped. CMS had 12 percent of its schools earning an A or A+, compared with 6 percent of all N.C. public schools. (See maps with grades and other data for Mecklenburg County at the bottom of this story. For data on other districts click here.)

But the numbers raise as many questions and challenges as ever. For instance, CMS now has an on-time graduation rate of 88 percent, up from 70 percent just five years ago and almost 3 points above the state average. The lowest school rate in CMS was 73 percent, at one of the small Olympic high schools, and 18 schools topped 90 percent.

Superintendent Ann Clark thanked numerous nonprofit groups and community partners that have worked with at-risk students. “Every single person in our district is responsible for the graduation rate,” she said.

Yet test scores indicate that roughly half the high school students in CMS and across the state lack the English, math and science skills to be ready for college or skilled jobs. And more than half of elementary and middle school students statewide and in CMS fell short of the reading skills needed to put them on track for that kind of success.

As always, test scores and school grades are strongly linked to demographics. Across the country students of color and those who live in poverty are less likely to pass exams, and 80 percent of the school grade is based on proficiency in reading, math and science. Growth ratings, which can recognize schools that make above-average gains with students who were below grade level, count for 20 percent.

Just more than half the students in CMS are considered economically disadvantaged, but of the almost 21,000 students in the A or A+ schools, only 17 percent were poor. Meanwhile, 93 percent of the approximately 7,300 students in the district’s F schools were from low-income homes.

Similar patterns occur in Mecklenburg charter schools earning A’s and F’s.

Parents, educators, politicians and advocates will be parsing the latest data for months to come. Here’s a look at some of the highlights.

What’s new, what’s the same?

The state held off on a plan to move from a 15-point grading scale for schools to a 10-point scale, which would have sent many schools’ ratings down.

This year’s results are comparable to last year’s, but there’s a new A+ rating. It goes to schools that meet the proficiency and growth standards for an A, and have no performance gaps – for instance, the difference between proficiency for black and white students – that are larger than the state average.

Another holdover is a two-tier rating system for student performance on exams. Last year the state lowered the bar for grade-level proficiency, adding roughly 10 percentage points to pass rates. The state and CMS continue to report the percentage of students who meet the old standard, labeling that “college and career ready.”

There are no rewards or penalties attached to the school grades.

Charter schools log highs, lows

Statewide and in Mecklenburg County, charter schools were more likely to earn A grades than district schools, but also more likely to earn F’s.

Across the state, 13 percent of charters and 6 percent of district schools earned an A. Among the 18 Mecklenburg charter schools that got grades, three got A’s, or 17 percent.

Five Mecklenburg charters, or 28 percent, got an F, compared with 13 percent of all N.C. charter schools and 6 percent of CMS and N.C. district schools.

Charter schools are an alternative form of public education run by independent boards. State Rep. Rob Bryan, a Mecklenburg Republican who holds a leadership role in education, has proposed a charter takeover of some of the state’s lowest-performing district schools.

But local charters appear to follow the same pattern as CMS, with A schools located in the relatively affluent suburbs or catering to high-achieving students. About 3,300 students attend Mecklenburg charters graded A, and only 3 percent are listed as economically disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, 81 percent of almost 1,700 students at F charters in Mecklenburg are economically disadvantaged. Some of those schools were created to provide alternatives for at-risk students.

Growth adds another perspective

The state tallies growth ratings for all schools based on students’ performance on previous exams. If students make more than one year’s progress a school can get a high growth rating, even if overall proficiency remains low. Several CMS schools that earned D’s based on proficiency exceeded their growth targets.

Likewise, schools that have a history of strong performance can fall short if students don’t keep it up. Several in CMS that earned B’s fell short on growth.

Just over 82 percent of CMS schools met or exceeded growth targets this year, compared with 75 percent statewide.

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

How Meck schools fared

Here’s how 160 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and 18 charter schools in Mecklenburg County fared on 2014-15 state letter grades.

CMS

A/A+: 19 schools (12 percent)

B: 50 schools (31 percent)

C: 44 schools (28 percent)

D: 37 schools (23 percent)

F: 10 schools (6 percent)

Charters

A/A+: Three schools (17 percent)

B: Four schools (22 percent)

C: Two schools (11 percent)

D: Four schools (22 percent)

F: Five schools (28 percent)

A+ schools

CMS neighborhood schools: Ballantyne, Elon Park, Huntersville, Polo Ridge and Providence Spring elementaries; Providence and Hough high schools.

CMS magnets: Piedmont Middle.

Charters: Community School of Davidson, Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy.

F schools

CMS neighborhood schools: Sterling Elementary; Ashley Park, Bruns, Byers, Druid Hills, Reid Park and Westerly Hills preK-8 schools; Eastway, King and Sedgefield middle schools.

Charters: Community Charter School, Kennedy, Crossroads High, Charlotte Choice, Charlotte Learning Academy.

Are they ready?

Here’s what state exams show about student skills in North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The first percentage indicates how many were judged to be performing at grade level. The second, with a higher cutoff, indicates that students are on track to be ready for college or careers (it corresponds to grade-level scores two years ago).

Reading (grades 3-8)

NC: 56 percent proficient, 45 percent college/career ready.

CMS: 56 percent proficient, 46 percent college/career ready.

Math (grades 3-8)

NC: 52 percent proficient, 44 percent college/career ready.

CMS: 57 percent proficient, 49 percent college/career ready.

Science (grades 5 and 8)

NC: 69 percent proficient, 59 percent college/career ready.

CMS: 71 percent proficient, 62 college/career ready.

High school biology, math I and English II

NC: 58 percent proficient, 48 percent college/career ready.

CMS: 63 percent proficient, 54 percent college/career ready.

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