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CMS third-grade reading scores keep dropping, even after in-person classes return

A Huntersville Elementary student works on a reading lesson.
Ann Doss Helms
A Huntersville Elementary student works on a reading lesson.

Early indicators show third-grade reading scores are getting worse in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, according to a report being presented to the school board Wednesday.

Based on preliminary testing, less than 15% of all third-graders — and less than 10% of those who are Black or Hispanic — are expected to earn year-end scores that indicate they’re on track for academic success.

Last year just under 16% of Black and Hispanic students hit that mark. The board recently set a goal of getting that level to 50% by 2024 — a goal some board members and community advocates criticized as not ambitious enough.

“Current third graders experienced pandemic-induced disruptions to instruction that have left them behind prior student cohorts,” the report says. “In 2019-20, when our current third graders were in first grade, the pandemic forced us to go to remote instruction for the entire 4th quarter of that school year.” Their second-grade year was spent moving between remote and hybrid lessons.

CMS tracks the percentage of students who reach a level the state dubs “college and career ready.” That’s a higher bar than grade-level proficiency. For instance, last year about 40% of all CMS third-graders earned grade-level scores, with almost 30% considered college and career ready.

Chart from Wednesday's report on reading performance.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Chart from Wednesday's report on reading performance.

Third-grade reading is crucial

Third-grade reading is viewed as a key indicator of a child’s academic prospects. Students who can’t read well as they reach the late elementary years are likely to fall behind in all subjects.

North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program has pumped more than $200 million into improving third-grade results. So far the program has had little success, especially with Black and Hispanic students. And the pandemic worsened existing gaps across the state. Now all North Carolina elementary school teachers are going through extensive re-training on how they teach reading, using a program called LETRS.

The CMS report is based on interim testing called MAP, for Measure of Academic Progress. Those scores, which aren’t available statewide, predict performance on the end-of-grade exams, but not perfectly. The report notes that last year’s final scores were better than MAP results.

Still, the MAP scores for winter of 2022 are worse than those for winter of 2021 for all races. The percent reaching the goal fell below 30% for white and Asian third-graders this year. Black students fell from about 12% to 7% and Hispanic students from 7% to 5%.

How will the superintendent respond?

For months now, the CMS board has been setting academic goals and reviewing data to track progress. Members have intentionally focused on the biggest challenges. And the new approach calls for the board to let Superintendent Earnest Winston craft the strategies for meeting those goals — and ultimately face consequences if he fails.

The reading update calls for the school board and community leaders to support CMS reading efforts in four ways:

  • Supporting efforts to prepare preschool children for reading readiness.
  • Finding ways to engage the families of children who are chronically absent.
  • Sending strong messages about the value of on-time attendance.
  • Helping teachers get better at teaching reading, “with emphasis on teaching Black and Hispanic students, building on the assets and cultures of their communities.”

Right after Winston and his staff present the reading update, they’ll unveil Winston’s 2022-23 budget proposal. That will outline his spending strategies for meeting the latest academic goals.

“We gave very clear directions to staff that we need to see in this budget exactly how the investments are expected to support the goals,” board Chair Elyse Dashew said last week. “That’ll be interesting to see how they connect those dots.”

Wednesday’s meeting will be remote — not because of public health concerns but because of scheduling conflicts. Board meetings are normally held on Tuesdays, but some members expected to be at a conference. So the second March meeting was pushed to Wednesday, and Dashew said no rooms were available at the Government Center.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. and will stream live on YouTube and Facebook.

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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.