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With online learning, CMS scores plummeted. Districts with more in-person time did better

During the 2020-2021 school year, CMS elementary students did not attend in-person school for four days a week until March.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
During the 2020-2021 school year, CMS elementary students did not attend in-person school for four days a week until March.

School boards had to make a tough decision last year: Bring children back to the classroom, or stay virtual during the pandemic. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools mostly stayed online, while neighboring districts opened their classrooms most of the year.

The decisions resulted in drastically different academic results, at least according to test scores. WFAE's Steve Harrison and Ann Doss Helms analyzed two years of North Carolina’s End-of-Grade test results. Their findings resulted in a three-part series through Wednesday. In the first installment, Steve Harrison reports on how much further behind CMS elementary students are than kids in surrounding districts.

When annual assessment test scores were released in September for the 2020-2021 pandemic year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston and other officials said the results were bleak.

They talked about the pandemic setting the district back so far that it would take a “multi-year effort” to recover.

But part of that learning loss is likely due to the choices CMS made — not just the pandemic itself.

A WFAE analysis of two years of test data shows CMS’s drops were arguably made worse by the school board’s decision — at Winston’s recommendation — to rely on online learning for almost all of the 2020-21 school year.

For elementary school students, CMS generally had larger drops than other districts in the Charlotte area, most of which brought students back for in-person learning much earlier. Black students in CMS did particularly badly, as did low-income students, Hispanic students, and English learners.

The biggest losses were in math.

Thelma Byers-Bailey, Vice-Chairperson of CMS board
Steve Harrison
Thelma Byers-Bailey, Vice-Chairperson of CMS board

“This was absolutely the most inequitable set of decisions and actions the board has taken in decades — bar none,” said CMS board member Sean Strain, who pushed unsuccessfully for more in-person class time. “And we can see it in all of the results.”

He said he noticed that CMS often did much worse than neighboring school systems, even after accounting for factors like income, race and ethnicity.

“You can see it in spades. And (minority students) were already in a position where they couldn’t afford to lose,” Strain said.

CMS board vice-chair Thelma Byers-Bailey said she agrees that staying remote for most of 2020-21 contributed to the decline.

But she doesn’t regret the district’s cautious approach. The local health experts in July 2020 didn’t give a firm recommendation about returning to school, leaving a difficult decision to the board.

Going back quickly “just wasn’t a risk we were willing to take,” she said. “We would rather have the student lose some education but still have the student so that we can catch them up when they come back, rather than have that student be gone.”

She added: “As far as I was concerned, that was the only thing that we could do. I was not willing to live with the death of our students on a rolling basis.”

But the belief that widespread COVID-19 transmission in schools would occur has been debunked by several studies, including one study that examined 11 North Carolina school districts with in-person instruction during the first nine weeks of the school year. It found “extremely limited” spread of COVID-19 in schools.

What test scores show

In its analysis, WFAE focused on Charlotte-area elementary school students, who had wide differences in how much time they spent in class. Some districts, such as Iredell-Statesville and Lincoln, had elementary students in class five days a week starting in October 2020.

And for elementary students who are so young, the pandemic has taken up a large part of their formal schooling.

Most CMS elementary students were entirely virtual until early November 2020. They then attended in-person classes two days a week for about a month before switching to virtual before winter break. In January, Mecklenburg County health director Gibbie Harris issued a stay-at-home recommendation, which pushed back the return to school.

The CMS board didn’t bring students back to the classroom until February, and it wasn’t until March 22 – a week into the fourth quarter – that elementary schools began a four-day-a-week “Plan A” schedule.

WFAE looked at the scores by race, ethnicity, and income and by subject matter and grade.

Before the pandemic, Black third graders in CMS had higher scores than Black third graders in 10 nearby districts that included Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell-Statesville, Lincoln, Catawba, Union, Cabarrus, Rowan, Stanly and Anson.

But a year of mostly virtual learning wiped much of that out.

Trouble seeing the graphic above? Try clicking here.

In math, 58% of CMS Black third-graders were proficient two years ago. That was higher than 10 other districts in the Charlotte area.

But in 2020-21, the percent of Black CMS third graders who were proficient in math dropped by 35 percentage points. That was by far the largest drop in the region.

It’s possible the declines were even larger. Most districts in the Charlotte area had at least 95% of students take the end-of-grade tests, which had been the state minimum. That level of participation was waived for the pandemic year, and state data shows that between 89 and 90% of Black CMS elementary students took the tests.

There were also drops in reading, though not as large.

Before the pandemic, Black third graders in CMS (48%) scored slightly higher than Black third graders in Union County (46%).

Union started the school year with elementary students in school two days a week and then went to four days a week in late October.

The percent of Black CMS third graders who were deemed at grade level dropped by 19.9 percentage points — the largest decline in the Charlotte region. Union fell by 11.7 points.

Iredell-Statesville: More time in class, smaller drops

One of the biggest contrasts was between CMS and Iredell-Statesville schools, a smaller suburban district.

Iredell has a higher percentage of white students than CMS, and it has fewer students who are considered economically disadvantaged. Across the country, those demographics almost always correspond to higher overall scores. But WFAE took a deeper dive to control for those factors and looked at students of the same demographic groups.

Iredell-Statesville brought its elementary students back for five days a week in early October. It also had some of the smallest drops in test scores in the state.

For instance, before the pandemic, Iredell (41%) and CMS (42%) had nearly the same passing rate in reading for third graders who are economically disadvantaged.

When this year’s scores were released, CMS had dropped 20 percentage points; Iredell fell by 3.

Iredell Superintendent Jeff James said district officials realized in the spring of 2020 that online school wasn’t working.

“'Ghosting' is when someone disappears in the virtual world and you can not find them,” James said. “And we had quite a few of those, and unfortunately, it tended to be more heavily in our at-risk students and we needed them in class.”

Jonathan Ribbeck, the district’s chief academic officer for elementary schools, said teachers looked at their own school-based test results (students didn’t take state-mandated tests that year) in the summer of 2020 after schools were closed for nearly three months when COVID-19 first arrived.

Jonathan Ribbeck of Iredell-Statesville Schools
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Jonathan Ribbeck of Iredell-Statesville Schools

“We had teachers and staff saying, ‘Look at these numbers,'” he said. “We have to have kids in five days. We can’t afford to even miss a day.”

At the elementary level, CMS’ biggest challenge was in math, where students posted some of the largest drops in the region in grades 3, 4, and 5.

Sean Strain
Steve Harrison
Sean Strain, CMS board member

Strain, the CMS board member, points to overall math scores for third-graders. In Cabarrus County,

they fell about 13 percentage points.

“And that’s a terrible position to be in,” Strain said. “ Our kids fell 30%. Three times as far. Three times as many kids were negatively impacted.”

CMS fifth graders — the only grade in elementary to take the end-of-grade science test — posted some of the largest declines in the region.

CMS third graders saw large drops in reading. But students in fourth and fifth grades did better, with declines that were in line with the state and other districts in the Charlotte area, like Iredell and Cabarrus.

CMS board member Carol Sawyer supported a more cautious return to in-person instruction.

She says there’s little value in looking backward to make comparisons.

“I’m sure somebody could do a meta-data analysis on it, but, you know, for me it’s like that doesn’t really inform us,” she said.

She said CMS shouldn't be compared to neighboring school districts.

“I would push back on that," Sawyer said. "I looked at Wake and Durham and other large urbans. I mean, I don’t think it’s fair to compare us to small rural districts.”

The problem with comparing CMS to large districts is that those districts made similar decisions to stay remote — and there would be no control group to judge the impact of being virtual for most of the year.

Harvard Professor Marty West led a review of more than 300 studies of the impact of COVID-19 on schools for the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

He said it’s “certainly the case” the large districts like CMS had unique organizational and logistical challenges.

But he said despite the differences and size and demographics, it’s OK to compare Black students in a smaller district to Black students in an urban district.

“But looking back, we can still make the comparisons between the changes in achievement that we see across those two settings,” he said.

Community still divided

Dee Rankin is a Black CMS parent who serves on the CMS Equity Committee and follows education issues for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus. He said he doesn’t think it’s fair to compare CMS with smaller districts or to blame district officials for playing it safe while COVID-19 was hitting Black and Hispanic families especially hard. About two-thirds of CMS students fall into those two groups, a higher percentage than in neighboring districts.

“I know there were other parents that were pushing, pushing, pushing to go back in person but it just wasn’t safe,” Rankin said. “You had to weigh your options. Do we rush back just because we know that in-person’s better? Or is our health worth — our lives worth — you know, staying remote, helping keep families safe and then figuring out strategies later to make up for the learning loss?”

But Alba Sanchez, who works with newly arrived families through Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition, says she’s hearing a lot of frustration.

“You had to weigh your options. Do we rush back just because we know that in- person’s better? Or is our health worth — our lives worth — you know, staying remote, helping keep families safe and then figuring out strategies later to make up for the learning loss?”
Dee Rankin, CMS parent

“I can tell you, Latino families are furious and tired with CMS,” Sanchez said.

The district has 40,000 Latino students this year, outnumbering white students in CMS and the total enrollment of all but six districts in North Carolina.

Fear of catching and spreading COVID-19 was real in the Latino community, Sanchez said, but people who lacked English skills, technology and knowledge of a complex school system couldn’t help their kids keep up.

“And what I see here working with families, it didn’t work for the Latino families," Sanchez said. "Maybe for a few months, but not for the entire school year.”

Latino elementary students had large drops in math proficiency. In 2019, 61% of Latino third graders were proficient in math. This year, that fell to less than 24%, a nearly 40 percentage-point drop.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
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.