CMS high schools lagging in new state tests

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comNovember 10, 2013 

A high school diploma doesn’t necessarily mean a teen is ready for college or a skilled job. That warning, which Superintendent Heath Morrison has been sounding since he arrived in 2012, is hammered home by the results of new state exams designed to give a realistic gauge of readiness.

If the tests do that accurately, the outlook is grim. At 21 of 33 public high schools in Mecklenburg County, fewer than half the students logged passing scores on math, biology and English last school year. The year before, under the old testing system, only one Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school and two charters serving at-risk students fell below the 50 percent mark.

It’s not just the long-struggling high-poverty schools that saw dramatic changes. Myers Park High, traditionally one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ most prestigious and high-performing schools, logged an overall pass rate of 58.5 percent for 2012-13. The previous year, almost 83 percent passed the old exams.

Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, a high-demand west Charlotte magnet school that prepares students for high-tech careers, fell from 96.1 percent passing the old exams to 50.6 percent passing the new ones.

Popular, high-performing charter schools saw similar drops.

Officials had been warning for months that new academic standards, more complex exams and higher “cut scores” for proficiency would bring a sharp drop in passing scores – and give the public a clearer picture of the challenges ahead.

“We want our students to be prepared and have that diploma have meaning,” CMS Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said last week.

But the actual numbers are likely to come as a shock after several years of rising test scores and graduation rates.

In 2011-12, the last year of the old exams, 19 Mecklenburg high schools topped 80 percent proficiency, with seven of those over 90 percent. Thirteen schools had 2013 graduation rates of 90 percent or higher, and the CMS average was a record-high 81 percent.

In the latest results, Ardrey Kell High in Mecklenburg’s southern tip was the only high school topping 80 percent proficiency. Only three more – Providence High, another CMS school in the southern suburbs, and Community School of Davidson and Lake Norman Charter in the northern suburbs – topped 70 percent.

In the coming months, the lower scores will throw a twist into family decisions about applying for magnets or charters for 2014-15. And this year’s scores on the high school exams will count for 25 percent of students’ grades in those courses, potentially lowering grade-point averages or throwing students off track to graduate. Last year CMS decided not to count the scores toward grades because the exams were new and unproven.

After Thursday’s public release of the data, district officials and principals say they’re still trying to sort out all the implications of the data. Families and schools have not yet gotten reports on individual student performance.

Morrison stopped short of saying he’s sure these exams accurately reflect a student’s skills. “The tests are one year in the field,” he said. “That’s not in our bailiwick to say how good was the actual test.”

But he says district leaders and principals are going to work immediately to plan strategies that bring real gains in the skills students need for life after a diploma. And the urgency will be especially fierce for those students closest to crossing that threshold.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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