Fewer than half the students in North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have the reading and math skills they need to be on track for college and skilled jobs, based on results of new state exams released Thursday.
Students took the tests last school year, as North Carolina moved toward tougher national academic standards designed to give a more honest measure of skills.
The 2013 scores indicate that most African-American, Hispanic and low-income students performed below grade level in reading, math and science. Those groups had begun catching up with white and Asian classmates on the old exams, but they saw the sharpest drop on the new ones.
In CMS, for instance, more than 70 percent of white students passed elementary, middle and high school math tests, but fewer than 30 percent of black students did. Both groups of CMS students outperformed state averages, the white students by more than 15 percentage points.
The picture is more bleak for students with disabilities or limited English proficiency. Statewide and in CMS, both groups had pass rates well below 20 percent on high school math, English and biology.
Many schools that serve large numbers of low-income and minority students saw hard-earned gains under the old testing system vanish, in some cases replaced by proficiency rates below 25 percent.
The results are going to be like a blow to the gut for a lot of folks, said Richard Stick Williams, president of the Duke Energy Foundation and co-chair of Project LIFT. Corporations and foundations involved with the project have pledged $55 million to boost achievement at West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, many of which logged very low proficiency ratings.
Williams called on businesses and other education supporters to renew their support for public education.
These are the results. Now what do we do about it? Williams said Thursday. Thats what the business community is interested in.
Sounding a warning
The sudden plunge in scoring doesnt signal declining performance by students or teachers, Superintendent Heath Morrison said. But the new results do sound a legitimate warning, he said.
Theyre appropriate standards, he said. I do believe that the standards give you a much better reflection of readiness.
In past years, scores had risen steadily. In 2012, well over 70 percent of North Carolina elementary and middle school students passed reading, math and science exams.
But many students who passed the tests and graduated needed remedial work in college. Employers have also complained about lack of skills.
North Carolina is among 44 states signing onto national Common Core academic standards, designed to push students to learn more complex problem-solving and analysis, rather than just basic information and skills. Other states that have rolled out new exams based on Common Core standards including Tennessee, Kentucky, New York and Florida have seen similar drops in proficiency ratings.
Results mirror another assessment
For the first time, results on the state exams are similar to performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP or the nations report card.
Those results, also released Thursday, showed 33 percent of North Carolina eighth-graders proficient in reading, while the state exam had 41 percent labeled proficient. In eighth-grade math, 36 percent of North Carolina students scored proficient on NAEP, and 34 percent earned a proficient score on the state exam.
The NAEP tests, given to a sampling of students around the country, are designed to provide a rigorous and consistent measure of academic achievement.
The new North Carolina test scores, which will translate into school letter grades next year, give a stark view of some high-poverty CMS schools that have struggled to improve.
For instance, West Charlotte High and its feeder schools are in the second year of Project LIFTs five-year push to boost proficiency and graduation rates past 90 percent. Last year West Charlotte celebrated a jump in its graduation rate, to 71 percent.
West Charlottes 2011-12 overall proficiency rating on the old algebra, English and biology exams was 44 percent. That fell to 17.4 percent on the results released Thursday, with 11.8 percent passing the new Math I test, 17.9 percent passing biology and 24.2 percent passing English II.
Twenty-seven other high-poverty CMS schools logged overall pass rates below 25 percent on the new exams, as did two local charter schools serving at-risk students. Among the low-scoring schools were several of the other Project LIFT schools and Reid Park Academy, a K-8 school that has been the focus of intensive CMS and community support.
We knew we would fail
Suburban schools, magnets and charters serving high-performing students fared much better but still saw declines. Beverly Woods Elementary, where CMS officials held a news conference on the test scores, fell from a 91.1 percent overall proficiency rate in 2012 to 73.4 percent for 2013.
Beverly Woods Principal Caroline Horne said shes still waiting for individual student reports to help teachers craft strategies for those who need improvement. And the school has held several parent meetings to prepare them for the new results.
Its been eye-opening, Horne said. We knew we would fall.
Horne said she believes student will benefit in the long run from the tougher standards and tests: Theyve had to be pushed out of their comfort zones. So have teachers.
While CMS officials acknowledge the challenges illuminated by the scores, they note that CMS outperformed state averages on every test and grade level. The district also exceeded state averages for most racial groups, low-income students and those with limited English proficiency.
The overall performance for CMS fell below Wake Countys, as well as such nearby districts as Cabarrus and Union County.
In addition to proficiency levels, the state released growth ratings. SAS, a Cary-based company that uses test scores to calculate teacher efficiency ratings, is now using its private formulas to calculate whether the school averaged at least one years gains for most students. Schools can be rated as meeting the growth goal, exceeding it or falling short.
Of 156 CMS schools with growth ratings, 127 met or exceeded the target.
Morrison and Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said CMS will use this years scores as a baseline for charting improvement, though coming changes in the testing system will make it difficult to chart year-to-year progress.
Its really hard at the end of the day to look at a parent and say, Heres how your childs doing, Morrison said of North Carolinas complex testing system. He said he supports the overall effort, but we just change so often. I believe that has to stop or it has to get streamlined very quickly.
But the main focus, according to Morrison and Barnes, will be using the information to provide additional support for teachers and target efforts to students who need the most help. CMS will continue analyzing the data to identify bright spots and urgent needs.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms