The state’s annual report on school performance, released Wednesday, brought a customary mix of encouraging and disheartening news from our classrooms.
CMS schools are graduating a higher percentage of students, as a whole. Low-income schools did comparatively poorly, with some exceptions. Charter schools, like public schools, had successes and struggles. All in all, not much different than previous reports.
Still, there are some things to learn from the latest round of school grades.
First, a caveat: We still don’t like the concept of giving schools a grade. It’s a clumsy use of test score data, which are meant to help educators and parents see how students and classrooms are growing and progressing against similar students and classrooms.
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The state is trying to be more precise by noting which schools are meeting growth expectations (helping students achieve more than one year’s progress from previous exams). But that only leads to more confusion – how can a school get a D when it’s meeting growth expectations? – and that breeds more unnecessary resentment about testing overall.
Grades aside, what did this report show us?
1) Good news for CMS/LIFT schools: A CMS focus on getting students across the graduation stage is paying off. The district’s graduation rate increased, once again, to 88 percent in 2015. That’s up from 69.9 percent just five years ago, and it’s higher than the state average of 85.4 percent.
Better yet, the numbers improved for critical subgroups, including blacks, Hispanics, students with limited English proficiency and students who are economically disadvantaged. That’s a system-wide achievement.
Also, several CMS schools with poor overall grades still met or exceeded state targets for growth. That includes four of nine Project LIFT schools, a signal to educators and families that those schools are likely moving in the right direction.
2) Low-income and literacy struggles: Despite that encouraging growth in some low-income schools, it’s hard to escape the sense that such changes are merely nibbling at the edges of a larger, urgent issue with low-income schools.
As the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms reports, the test scores showed again that about half of CMS high school students lack English, math and science skills to be ready for college or employment. That’s a sobering counterpoint to the good graduation news above. When you see schools with graduation rates near or above 80 percent but readiness rates near or below 50 percent, you have to wonder how equipped those graduates are.
Also, more than half of elementary and middle schools in CMS and across the state lagged in reading skills. As always, both the high school and grade school numbers are strongly linked to demographics.
The literacy scores are particularly vexing, not only to CMS but schools across the state and country. Experts and researchers agree that literacy is perhaps the deepest challenge for schools, because more than other subjects, it relies on skills developed and reinforced both inside and outside the classroom.
“Prior literacy efforts have not yielded the results we want,” CMS superintendent Ann Clark said in a statement Wednesday.
As for the demographics, the test scores will again provide affirmation to advocates who want to change the makeup of CMS schools – either by redrawing student assignment zones or other methods. It’s an issue that’s becoming increasingly difficult not to address more directly.
3) Some warnings on charters: The report also provided a bit of a reality check to charter school advocates in Raleigh and across the state.
Test scores showed a slightly higher percentage of public schools (72.2 percent) earned C’s or better than charter schools (70.4 percent). Charters, like other public schools, had successes and struggles that were largely dependent on the demographics of the student population. Schools that served low-income students generally performed more poorly. Affluent schools did comparatively well. No surprise.
That’s a warning to legislators who seem intent on relaxing standards and reporting from charter schools, including online academies, instead of demanding the same rigorous monitoring that public schools are given.
Still, the results weren’t necessarily ammunition against an N.C. House proposal that would allow charters to run a handful of the lowest-performing public schools. That plan, proposed by Mecklenburg Rep. Rob Bryan, would recruit charter operators that have a “record of results.”
As Wednesday’s test scores showed us again, those results are still hard to come by for many schools. Innovation, in many forms, is worth a try.