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CMS: Test Scores Are Bleak But Accurate Picture Of The Pandemic's Damage. Here's The Recovery Plan.

CMS students returned to classrooms on Aug. 25.
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
CMS students returned to classrooms on Aug. 25.

The latest round of state test scores show the pandemic set almost everyone back, especially the Black and Hispanic students who make up almost two-thirds of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. District leaders said Wednesday that the numbers provide a sobering but accurate picture of the pandemic’s impact.

CMS leaders, like educators across the country, have been warning for months that the pandemic seriously disrupted education. Students moved in and out of virtual learning. Some of them faced family members falling ill, dying or losing jobs. Some lacked the technology to connect remotely. Some were caring for siblings, or just tuned out under the stress.

Still, Superintendent Earnest Winston said it’s hard to prepare yourself for numbers like the state presentedWednesday.

"It sent a jolt through us as we reviewed some of the preliminary data," he said.

CMS chart comparing this year's reading scores with 2019 results. The last three groups are English learners (EL), students with disabilities (SWD) and academically/intellectually gifted (AIG).
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
CMS chart comparing this year's reading scores with 2019 results. The last three groups are English learners (EL), students with disabilities (SWD) and academically/intellectually gifted (AIG).

Just one example: Well under 20% of Black and Hispanic students in CMS earned reading scores considered strong enough to put them on track for academic success. For students with disabilities and those who are still learning to speak English, less than 5% hit that mark. (See the full CMS presentation here.)

"Now, we acknowledge that challenges existed before the pandemic," Winston said. "But they have been worsened during these atypical times."

It was the same story across the state, with minor variations. State officials, who normally use test scores to rate schools, emphasized that the 2021 numbers should be used only to plan recovery.

More Focus On Reading Skills

CMS Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes says some strategies build on what was gearing up before COVID-19 closed schools in spring of 2020. For instance, a reading curriculum called EL provides 45 minutes of work on reading skills each day for K-3 students.

"We’ll do that now and moving forward," Barnes said.

K-3 teachers are also being taught Orton-Gillingham reading strategies that incorporate all the senses. And they’re among the first in line for a statewide “science of reading” program called LETRS that’s supposed to help them develop young children’s skills.

$50 Million Will Enlist Outside Help

Barnes said CMS will use $50 million in federal COVID relief money to contract with community groups to provide math and reading tutoring at 42 low-performing schools.

"That support’s going to happen on Saturdays, before school, after school, and we’ll work with the leaders of these 42 schools to make sure that we set up the proper parameters that meet the specific needs of their students and their communities," he said.

CMS also plans to hire more counselors, social workers and psychologists to deal with lingering pandemic trauma. And Barnes said the district will also hire bilingual school advocates and full-time translators.

"We need to strengthen the bridge between home and school, particularly for our families who don’t speak English," he said.

Barnes says assessments will begin next week to size up where each student stands and what’s needed to get them up to grade level. CMS will make quarterly progress reports to the school board and to county commissioners, who have demanded more academic progress.

Winston pledged to outpace other districts in academic recovery. But both he and Barnes say the setbacks have been so dramatic that it will take years just to get back to pre-pandemic status. And that, they agree, isn’t really good enough.

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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.