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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

NC School Report Highlights Inequality, Slow Progress


North Carolina's annual release of test scores and graduation rates for more than 2,500 public schools provides a snapshot of inequality — and a study in the slow pace of progress.

The detailed data reports posted Wednesday show a pattern that has become familiar throughout the state and nation: White and Asian students are far more likely to pass exams than black and Hispanic counterparts. Students classified as low-income are less likely to pass than students from more affluent homes.

Consider third-grade reading, which has been the focus of a six-year push to boost young readers' skills. Despite more than $150 million the state has spent on summer reading camps and other support, scores have barely budged. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools they've actually regressed slightly.

Overall proficiency in third-grade reading was 57%, but 77% of North Carolina's Asian students and 70% of white ones hit the grade-level mark. That compares with 40% of black third-graders and 44% of Hispanics.

Third-grade reading proficiency was 42% for students classified as economically disadvantaged and 71% for those who didn't fall under that label.

Those patterns played out across districts, subjects and grade levels.

CMS students often outperformed counterparts in the same racial and economic groups. For instance, 49% of CMS black students passed math exams in grades 3-8, compared with 39% of black students statewide. The CMS edge was even bigger for white students, with 87% passing the math exams. Statewide the pass rate was 71% for white students.

[Related: Here Are Charlotte Area's Best, Worst Schools, According To State Grades]

But because CMS is a big district with schools that tend to be separated by race and income, the contracts can be stark. Consider Providence High, a low-poverty, mostly white school in south Charlotte. More than 95% of students graduated on time, 73% passed End of Course exams and 91% earned ACT scores that would qualify for college admission.

At Harding High in west Charlotte, a mostly black school where poverty is prevalent, the graduation rate was just under 56%, with 16% passing EOC exams and 18% earning college-ready ACT scores.

Earnest Winston, who became CMS superintendent last month, acknowledged that there wasn't enough to celebrate in the report.

"We own this data. I own this data," Winston said at a news conference at Lawrence Orr Elementary in east Charlotte. "It is not where we want to be and it is not where we plan to remain."

Orr, a high-poverty neighborhood school, moved up from a C to a B on school letter grades this year.

But often those grades, which are based mostly on the percent of students who passed state exams, reflect the advantages students arrive with, rather than the quality of their education. Most A schools in the Charlotte area are in affluent neighborhoods or select for high-performing students, while Ds and Fs almost always land on schools serving nonwhite and disadvantaged students.

CMS had 42 low-performing schools — a label the state gives to schools that get D's and F's, unless they exceed the state's target for student growth. That was more than any other district, partly because of its size. Wake, the only district bigger than CMS, had 28 schools labeled low-performing.

But several schools across the state and in the Charlotte region had higher proportions of low-performing schools. For instance, more than 40% of schools in Rowan-Salisbury and Anson County were rated low-performing, compared with 25% in CMS. Both are much smaller districts in the region.

Growth ratings, which account for 20% of school letter grades, give a better picture of teacher quality, according to many educators and policymakers. That's calculated by SAS, a Cary-based data company that rates whether students fared better, worse or about the same as expected, based on previous years' scores.

The highest growth rating in CMS went to Bailey Middle in Cornelius, a low-poverty suburban school that earned an A overall. Cabarrus County had three of the state's 10 highest-growth schools: Hickory Ridge, Winkler and Harris Road middle schools. They also were graded A or B.

But high-poverty CMS schools with lower overall grades, such as Garinger High and Martin Luther King Middle in east Charlotte, also logged growth ratings well above expectations. Those schools got a C and a D, respectively.

The 2019 data will be added to school report cards later. Audio from Wednesday's discussion about the numbers at the state Board of Education meeting in Raleigh is available on YouTube.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.