Schools narrow racial gap: Exam scores up in all CMS grades 3-8

The achievement gaps between black and white students narrowed this year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, especially in elementary grades, while the district’s performance on year-end tests rose in each grade from third to eighth, according to preliminary results released Monday.

The results on the state math and reading exams offer a first look at how schools are faring under the district’s new school "choice" assignment plan. The plan gives families much more say in picking their schools, though some students still ended up assigned to schools they didn’t pick.

"These kids were learning no matter where they were last year, and these kids (continued) to learn no matter where they are this year," Superintendent James Pughsley said in announcing the scores.

"The best thing that has happened is we have sacrificed no group of students. The biggest challenge now is to repeat it."

Preliminary high school scores black and white students will be released later this month. Comparisons with the rest of the state won’t be possible until the state reviews scores for all districts and releases them in late summer or early fall.

In fourth-grade reading, 83 percent in Mecklenburg passed this year, up from 74 percent last year. In mathematics, 95 percent of fourth-graders passed, compared with 88 percent last year. In middle schools, 82 percent of seventh-graders passed the reading and math tests, up from 73 percent passing reading last year and 79 percent passing math.

The decline in performance gaps between black and white students was sharpest in lower grades. In fourth grade, for example, 91 percent of black children passed the math test, only 8 percentage points below the 99 percent of white children who passed. Last year, the gap was 18 points. In eighth grade, 94 percent of white students passed the math test, compared with 68 percent of black students — a difference of 26 percentage points. That’s only 2 percentage points better than last year’s 28-point gap.

"Those do look like really good score increases," said Lou Fabrizio, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s top testing official. But, he added, he hasn’t received scores from enough other districts to say how CMS’s performance compares. School officials in two other large districts — Wake County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools — said they have not released scores yet.

But CMS’s early results also reveal who is struggling. In some schools achievement gap black and white students minimal, for example, fewer than half of the special education students, with various educational disabilities, passed the reading test.

Results show several schools succeeded despite factors such as large numbers of low-income students that make high achievement harder, CMS said.

At Tuckaseegee Elementary in west Mecklenburg, for example, 64 percent of the students qualify for the federal lunch program — well above the district average and an indicator of poverty.

Yet, more than 91 percent of Tuckaseegee students scored at or above grade level. Further, the performance of black and white students is separated by only 5 to 8 percentage points — much better than the districtwide average.

The school added a magnet program for gifted students this year, but the scores of those 20 students account for only a small portion of the overall performance at this school, where 350 took the test, said Principal Brenda McKinney. "All children can learn if you expect it," she said.

At Collinswood Elementary, south of downtown, more than one-fourth of the students have limited English skills — and more than 90 percent of those youngsters passed the reading and math exams.

At Beverly Woods Elementary, in south Charlotte, nearly 17 percent are special education students — and 95 percent of those students passed the exams. Kids in regular classes are paired as mentors with special education students, Principal Nancy Hicks said.

Nearly 51,000 CMS students in grades 3 through 8 took the exams in May. The results, officially released by the state later this summer, not only have a big impact on school reputations, but help decide whether kids in grades 3, 5, and 8 move to the next grade.

Among third-graders systemwide, 82 percent passed reading and 88 percent passed math. In fifth-grade, 87 percent passed reading and 92 percent passed math. With eighth-graders, 84 percent passed reading; 81 percent passed math.

"There is no better way to bring a year to an end than to have success," Pughsley said.

The preliminary performances give a very rough idea how CMS will perform under the new No Child Left Behind federal law. When those results are released in July, a school could be labeled as below standard if any group — such as special education youngsters, Hispanic children or low-income kids — don’t show enough students performing on grade level.

Pughsley said Monday that even with CMS’s strong results in the preliminary scoring, he still believes many Mecklenburg’s schools could fail to meet the federal law. That’s because a low performance by any group can cause a school to be labeled below standard.

"It makes me hopeful, but at the same time we have a mountain to climb … I know there are some situations where we will have to give more attention to."

Performance results for high schools — which traditionally haven’t fared as well as elementaries and middles on state exams — are expected to be released later this month.

Other area districts are also releasing word of their elementary and middle school scores.

Gaston, Lincoln and Kings Mountain school districts each reported 84 percent and better passing rates. Union County and Cabarrus County also report improvements in scores and a shrinking of their racial gap.

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