Education

Highs and lows of NC school ratings highlight CMS strategies

Fifth-graders at Bain Elementary test a water filter they designed. CMS officials say hands-on experiments have helped boost science scores.
Fifth-graders at Bain Elementary test a water filter they designed. CMS officials say hands-on experiments have helped boost science scores. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Test scores and school grades aren’t news to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders, who track performance data all year. But the state’s 2015 school data report, released Wednesday, calls public attention to what’s working, what’s not and what CMS plans to do next.

Superintendent Ann Clark and her top staff outlined strategies highlighted by the data. Here are three:

Science success

When the state introduced science tests for fifth- and eighth-graders in 2008, pass rates were low.

Part of the problem: Most elementary school teachers were focused on reading and math and had little training in science.

So then-Superintendent Peter Gorman tapped Wayne Fisher, an award-winning physics teacher at Myers Park High, to improve science lessons for the younger students. Fisher led a push to develop science labs in elementary schools, train teachers and provide kits for hands-on activities that made learning fun. Community partners such as Discovery Place joined in. Schools created more teams to compete in science and robotics.

This year CMS performed better on the elementary and middle school science exams than reading and math, with 62 percent deemed on track for college readiness.

Clark and Fisher said many of the strategies that helped students master science will transfer to reading and math.

Reading struggles

A few years ago, CMS pass rates on reading were so high that Gorman said the district had cracked the code for teaching that skill.

Then the state revised the tests. Grade-level scores plummeted. This year only 56 percent of CMS elementary and middle school passed reading, virtually unchanged from last year.

Clark and Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said a higher bar is better, even when results look worse. North Carolina’s standards are now among the nation’s highest, they said.

In fact, they emphasized a slightly higher standard that labels only 46 percent on track for the reading skills they’ll need for college.

Teachers and principals are being immersed in literacy training, and CMS employees are being urged to volunteer one hour a week helping students who struggle with reading.

New support

School letter grades bring no rewards for success, and no penalties or extra support for failing schools. The intent is to call attention to strengths and weaknesses.

Most of the lowest-performing schools in CMS have already been the focus of efforts to recruit top teachers and principals, restructure schools and provide additional support.

Clark said that eight more schools will be reviewed for additional help. Those schools earned a D or F, failed to meet targets for student progress and are not part of the public-private Project LIFT or the district’s recent Beacon Initiative, she said.

Schools that meet that description are David Cox Road, Sedgefield and Sterling elementary schools and Northeast, Northridge, Kennedy, Eastway and Sedgefield middle schools.

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

More info

Get 2015 data for all N.C. public schools: www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting/

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