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Test results paint mixed picture for CMS

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students outperformed their peers in other large, urban school districts across the country, according to the results of the latest Nation’s Report Card evaluation. But, at the same time, 37 CMS schools are on the state’s new list of low-performing schools.

The juxtaposition of those two realities, announced within days of each other, is jarring — and it highlights the challenges CMS faces in student achievement.

District officials lauded the results from the Nation’s Report Card, also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows CMS at or near the top of a list of 21 large, urban school districts. CMS was first in fourth- and eighth-grade math performance on the tests. Other cities tracked in the report include Atlanta, Houston, and Washington.

CMS also did better than the rest of the state and, in most cases, the nation.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg students beat the North Carolina averages in all reading and math exams. They did the same compared to the national average, except on eighth-grade reading, where the CMS and national averages were the same. CMS boosters took to social media to cheer the scores, which they say highlights the success happening in the district’s classrooms every day.

But days before, the state released its list of struggling schools, and CMS was featured prominently on that catalog, too.

Thirty-seven CMS campuses made the list of schools that received a D or F and did not exceed the expectation for student growth in the state’s School Performance Grade system for last year. Nine Mecklenburg County charter schools also made the list.

Only Guilford County’s school district had a larger number of schools on the list than CMS. However, neither GCS nor CMS made the list of low-performing districts, a label that comes when more than half of a school system’s campuses are considered low-performing. Twenty-three percent of CMS’ 168 schools received the state seal of disapproval this year.

Advocacy groups, legislators, and even some school districts question the state’s method of grading schools, which gives more weight to student performance on testing than on growth from year to year. This year, the General Assembly expanded the definition of low-performing schools.

Setting methodology aside for a moment, though, these two reports highlight CMS’ mighty struggle to close the achievement gaps that exist in this large, diverse community. Many of the schools that made the state’s low-performing list serve high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. Data reported by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute shows the income achievement gap is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

None of this is particularly new news; CMS has been working for years at addressing its lowest performing schools through initiatives like Project LIFT. And nationally, minority and low-income students consistently score lower on the NAEP exams than white and more affluent students.

Superintendent Ann Clark said last week that she hopes to use the successes in NAEP reading and math performance to drive change across the district. In other words, look for CMS to dig into the test results to find out what’s working, and then try to replicate that across the district, and especially at struggling schools.

But seeing the two headlines days apart — CMS is a national leader among big city school districts, yet it has more than three dozen low-performing schools — is a bit of a head-scratcher for parents. The contrast is perhaps one of the best examples of the nuance involved in public education here. CMS schools are not wildly successful, nor are they a colossal failure. The truth is far more complicated — and so are the solutions.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.