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Failing Scores On High School Exams Paint Picture Of CMS Pandemic Setbacks

Hough High School students in science class after returning to in-person classes last month.
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Hough High School students in science class after returning to in-person classes in February.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Tuesday released grim first-semester test results showing how much the pandemic has increased failure rates.

Normally test scores are released after the end of a school year, but the pandemic canceled testing last spring. Recently North Carolina education officials released a midyear testing report that showed failure rates had risen during the pandemic.

This week, CMS Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes posted local results for first semester exams in four high school courses: Math I and III, English II and biology.

CMS students generally outperformed state averages, but the same patterns held: In the math and science courses, significantly more students failed their state exams this year than in first semester of last year, before the pandemic closed schools and disrupted education. The failure rate in English II showed little change.

The CMS analysis shows all groups of students saw slumps in math and biology, but those who traditionally score lower took the biggest hits. For instance, among CMS Black students the failure rate for Math I exams rose from 53% last year to 78% this year, while it rose from 13% to 31% for white students. Ninety-one percent of CMS English learners failed Math I this year, compared with 66% the year before.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

CMS high school students worked from home the first semester, but Barnes says that’s not the only factor limiting success. "We are trying to teach and learn through a global pandemic," he said, "and that is different than just remote instruction."

Summer School Designed To Help

CMS plans to offer six weeks of free summer school for up to 50,000 students. That’s a bit more than one-third of all K-12 students, and it’s roughly the number believed to be at high academic risk.

"We will give first priorities to students who have been struggling academically, students who are homeless, and for our English learner newcomers," Barnes said. If the seats aren't filled, others will be eligible.

The summer program is mandated by the state, and funded largely by federal COVID-19 relief money. Barnes says it will include academic work, but also music, art and sports, "the things that they’ve been wanting to do with other students, but the pandemic has restrained them from being able to express in person."

Registration opens next week.

Superintendent Earnest Winston says it could take years to undo the pandemic’s damage to academic skills.

"Academic performance has slipped," he told the school board. "This means we have significant work to do with all of our students."

He’ll be making that pitch as he takes a $2 billion budget plan to the school board, the public and county commissioners. Among his requests: Almost $4 million to hire more social workers and psychologists to help students recover from the academic and personal blows delivered by COVID-19.

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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.