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NC schools inch toward recovery but disparities and pandemic setbacks linger

Students work on reading skills over the summer at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Renaissance West STEAM Academy.
Ann Doss Helms
Students work on reading skills over the summer at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Renaissance West STEAM Academy.

Two years after in-person classes were disrupted during the pandemic, North Carolina’s 2023 test scores show a slow, unfinished academic recovery.

Scores posted Wednesday show across-the-board gains over 2022, but performance in reading, math and science remains below levels recorded in 2019. Consider:

  • In elementary and middle-school math, 53% of students earned grade-level scores last year, up about 3 percentage points over last year. But in 2019 almost 59% passed the tests.
  • In elementary and middle-school reading, 50% earned grade-level scores, up almost 2 percentage points.
  • In third-grade reading, considered a crucial gateway for success, the 2023 pass rate was just under 48%. In 2019 the pass rate was 57% for grades 3-8 and for third grade alone. Last year’s third-graders were sent home in the spring of their kindergarten year and spent at least part of first grade learning remotely.
  • Patterns were similar in high school, with 54% passing biology, 58% passing English II and 36% passing Math I. All were up over 2022 but below 2019. The Math I levels are low because students who take that course in middle school aren’t tallied.
  • State testing director Tammy Howard said eighth-grade science was a notable exception, with the pass rate dropping four percentage points, to 61%, in 2023. "I must say we're a little bit surprised," Howard told the state Board of Education. "We're not sure why we're seeing this decrease."
Layna Hong

State officials caution against assuming past years’ results are precisely comparable, but the trends are consistent across demographic groups and districts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other districts in the Charlotte region saw similar small gains while remaining below pre-pandemic levels.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the state board that after-effects of the pandemic turmoil linger, even after two years of fully in-person classes.

We are in year 2 of COVID recovery, and one of the indicators of that is our levels of chronic absenteeism, which correlate to learning loss, which make it harder for students to gain," Truitt said. "Last year we were still at a level of 31%. In other words, a third of kids in North Carolina are missing more than 10 days of school per year."

As always, the scores also show that success in school is unevenly distributed. The state combines all tested subjects in elementary, middle and high school into a composite proficiency rate, which is broken out by various types of students.

  • Asian students had an 81% proficiency rate, the only group that has matched its 2019 performance.
  • White students had a 67% pass rate, up two points over last year but four points below 2019.
  • Hispanic students logged a 42% proficiency rate, up two points over last year but down 6.5 points compared with 2019. Students classified as English learners had only a 23% proficiency rate statewide. Spanish speakers make up the majority of English learners. 
  • Black students had a 36% proficiency rate, up almost three points over 2022 but remaining almost five points below 2019.
  • Students classified as economically disadvantaged fell just under 40% proficiency, compared with 69% of students who don’t fall into that category.
  • Students with disabilities had a 19% proficiency rate, up from 18% in 2022 and down from 22% in 2019.
Layna Hong

All of those disparities predated the pandemic, in North Carolina and across the nation. Disruptions to in-person learning hit hardest in communities with language barriers, technology gaps and lesser ability for parents or paid tutors to fill education gaps — and the virus itself caused more illness, death and job losses in Black, Latino and low-wage families.

North Carolina uses test scores to calculate a growth rating for each school, tallying whether students made approximately a year’s growth, fell short or exceeded that target. CMS accounted for three of the state's 10 highest growth scores, for Providence and Ardrey Kell High and Coulwood STEM Academy. Union County's Cuthbertson High was also in the top 10.

The state then calculates a school performance grade for each school, including districts and charter schools, with proficiency accounting for 80% of the grade and growth for 20%. Schools receiving D’s and F’s almost always serve mostly Black, Latino and/or low-income students. Top grades tend to go to schools in affluent areas and/or those with academic programs that attract strong, motivated students, such as magnet schools with admission requirements.

In addition, the state labels schools as low performing, which is supposed to bring extra assistance, if they get a D or F and do not exceed the growth target.

Out of almost 2,600 North Carolina schools that were graded, 180, or 7%, got A’s. More than 900 got D’s or F’s. About 100 of them escaped the low-performing label because they made strong growth.

Statewide, the number of low-performing schools dropped from 864 in 2022 to 806 in 2023. Most districts in the Charlotte region also saw the number drop, but CMS saw an increase, from 50 low-performing schools in 2022 to 58 this year.

Truitt noted that she and others have been trying to change North Carolina's school performance grades to be less reliant on student proficiency on annual exams. So far the General Assembly has taken no action to revise the system.

Truitt told the state board that other states assign far fewer failing grades, even though national exams indicate they're not outperforming North Carolina.

"Arizona only has 7% of their schools designated as a D or F. Florida has 6% of their schools designated as a D or an F. Texas has 8% of their schools designated as a D or F," she said. "North Carolina has 42% of their schools designated as a D or an F."

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Updated: September 6, 2023 at 12:06 PM EDT
Updated to reflect information presented to the state Board of Education.
Education Education
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.