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Plunge in SAT scores for CMS seniors puzzles officials

Chart tracks average SAT scores for CMS, North Carolina and the nation. The red bar is CMS.
Chart tracks average SAT scores for CMS, North Carolina and the nation. The red bar is CMS.

This month’s deluge of testing data brought one troubling trend for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that I haven’t reported yet: The district’s average SAT score dropped 25 points, landing the district well below state and national averages.

CMS seniors went down significantly in all three parts of the college-preparedness exam, with math down 10 points, critical reading down 8 and writing down 7. State and national averages went down 1 to 3 points in each area.

The overall CMS average of 1466 lagged well below North Carolina’s 1478 and the nation’s 1490. (For details, see pages 47 and 48 of the board presentation, or watch the SAT discussion at the one-hour mark of the Sept. 8 board meeting video.)

“The large drop that we saw ... is certainly troubling and raised some questions for us,” Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes told the school board last week.

CMS is big enough that you don’t normally see the kind of wild swings that showed up when Barnes displayed a 13-year trend line of SAT verbal and math averages. On national exams such as NAEP, known as the nation’s report card, the district tends to track North Carolina’s trends. But on the SAT, CMS shot past North Carolina in 2010 and 2014, only to plunge in 2012 and 2015.

One big variable is that the SAT isn’t required. Students who are serious about attending four-year colleges are most likely to take the exam, with some paying for extensive preparation and retaking it to boost scores. Schools, districts and states with the most self-selective crop of test-takers tend to log the highest averages. Barnes said about 5,300 CMS students took the exam last year, compared with just over 5,000 in 2014 and 2013, but that seems unlikely to account for the big dip.

Nor was there a change in the exam itself or in CMS support for participation.

“We need to explore what’s causing these ebbs and flows, these tops and troughs where we’re making gains and then we’re giving those gains back over time,” Barnes told the board.

Barnes noted that results on the ACT, a college-readiness test that all N.C. high school students must take, held virtually flat from last year, with about 8,300 CMS students contributing to those scores.

I’ll be surprised if CMS gets a clear picture of why the SAT results are fluctuating, and ultimately it may prove to be just an interesting footnote. The central challenge still seems to be the one outlined starkly by the ACT and state high school exam results, showing that in many of the district’s high schools, hundreds of students are graduating without the skills they need for college and high-paying jobs.

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