Fewer CMS schools hit federal goals

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials expressed concern Tuesday about black-white achievement gaps and a significant drop in the number of schools meeting progress standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

A preliminary count by the state found that 36 of 158 CMS schools tested met the standard, called “adequate yearly progress,” in 2007-08. A year earlier, 61 schools did.

Superintendent Peter Gorman attributed the decline to ever-rising standards demanded by federal law, which aims to have all students proficient in math and reading by 2014.

While some test scores are rising in CMS, “it's not going up at a fast enough rate,” Gorman told school board members. “The standards will get harder and harder.”

To make adequate progress, schools must meet multiple pass-rate targets, including those for various racial groups, students with disabilities, low-income students, and students with limited English proficiency. The targets vary from school to school, depending on diversity levels.

N.C. officials are raising their benchmarks every three years in hopes of gradually meeting the federal goal. The decline in the number of CMS schools making their targets coincides with higher standards taking hold this year. For instance, math targets this year in grades 3-8 rose from 65.8 percent of students scoring well to 77.2 percent.

Schools that fail to show enough students scoring “proficient” or above on state tests can be forced to offer free tutoring or transfers out to other schools. In January, CMS let 19,000 students at 33 high-poverty schools apply to switch schools in August. About 2,700 accepted the offer.

CMS officials say that the number of schools making sufficient progress could rise once the results of state reading tests are made public this fall.

School board member Trent Merchant said the federal law's requirement of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is so unrealistic that it seems “insane” to him and irrelevant to many observers. He said he wanted CMS to focus on meeting achievable goals, and on tackling the disparities between African American and white students.

He said black students in grades three through eight have been lagging far behind their white counterparts for the past three years. He said the test results suggest that if you put ten black CMS students in a room, half would be failing.

“I want something so startling and scary and so aggressive that it offends people,” he said. “We can't keep doing what we're doing.”

He asked Gorman what the “ultimate sanction” would be if CMS doesn't meet the federal goal by 2014. Gorman said ultimately the federal government could take over local schools, but he and Merchant agreed that wasn't likely.

“So since we have an empty gun pointed at us,” Merchant said, “can't we set our own goals that are realistic?”

School systems across the country have struggled to keep meeting the rising targets of the Bush Administration's top education initiative. Congress is considering changes to the law.