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For CMS and nearby districts, NC school data brings bragging rights and warning signs

CMS strategy chief Beth Thompson (left) and Superintendent Crystal Hill talk about district reading scores at a news conference at Renaissance West STEAM Academy on Wednesday.
Ann Doss Helms
CMS strategy chief Beth Thompson (left) and Superintendent Crystal Hill talk about district reading scores at a news conference at Renaissance West STEAM Academy on Wednesday.

Wednesday’s release of North Carolina test scores and school performance grades set off the annual ritual of looking for bright spots, identifying weaknesses and comparing performance among districts and schools.

There were some common trends across the state, which were reflected in the Charlotte region: Math and reading scores went up, but remain below pre-pandemic levels. School letter grades reflect that, as many schools nudged up by a letter or two. But D’s and F’s remain far more common than they were before schools closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And gaps based on race, income and other factors, such as disability and English proficiency, remain large.

The state posted data for about 2,600 district and charter schools, including test scores, high school graduation rates and A-to-F school grades. Download it here and find previous years’ data here.

Here’s a look at high and low spots for schools in the Charlotte region.

Layna Hong

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

For the most part, CMS scores reflected statewide trends. (See the district’s presentation here.)

Overall scores tend to reflect demographics — high-poverty schools and districts that serve large numbers of Black and Hispanic students tend to rate lower. The CMS composite proficiency rate of 52.1% for all students was slightly below the state average of 53.6%.

Breaking that down by race shows white students, who made up about 24% of CMS students last year, outperformed counterparts statewide, with an 81% pass rate in CMS compared with 67% for white students statewide. The district’s Black students, the largest group in CMS, were slightly ahead of state counterparts, 39% to 36%. Hispanic students, who made up almost 30% of CMS enrollment, underperformed statewide counterparts, with 38.5% proficiency versus 42%. And CMS Asian students logged 79% proficiency, compared with 81% statewide.

Layna Hong

CMS saw more schools score A’s and B’s this year, and fewer schools score D’s and F’s. But the number of schools rated low performing, based on proficiency and growth on exams, rose from 50 in 2022 to 58 in 2023.

“This label is not an indication or reflection of the potential of our students, our community or the ability of our teachers and administrators,” Superintendent Crystal Hill said at a news conference Wednesday. “What it does signal is that we as a school system have not adequately provided a comprehensive strategy of support and associated resources to the schools that need us the most.”

As expected, the district also fell short of the school board’s academic goals. Those call for 36% of Black and Hispanic third-graders to earn a “college and career ready” reading score in 2023, moving up to 50% in 2024. That’s a higher mark than grade-level proficiency, and only 17.9% of Black third-graders and 14.7% of Hispanic third-graders met it in 2023. Another goal called for 16.5% of all high school students taking Math I to hit the college and career mark in 2023; only 9.4% did so. A third goal was for 86% of schools to meet or exceed the state's target for growth; 82.6% did so.

But CMS also stood out on the high end. The state’s growth rating, which accounts for 20% of a school letter grade, calculates how much each school fell above or below the expected year’s progress, regardless of whether those students started the year at, above or below grade level. Four of the state’s top 20 schools for growth were in CMS: Providence and Ardrey Kell high schools, Coulwood STEM Academy and Jay M. Robinson Middle School. Coulwood, a high-poverty middle school in northwest Charlotte, got a C, while the other three — all low-poverty south Charlotte schools — got A’s.

Hill says CMS will provide intensive academic support designed to help all students exceed their growth goals in 2024. And she said there will be districtwide efforts to improve attendance, help students manage behavior and create a more supportive culture for students and employees.

Hill also acknowledged that the gains are small. But she noted that they came at a time when CMS was going through instability. That includes turnover in district leadership, as well as recovering from pandemic turmoil.

“What I would say is if we can do this in unstable conditions, knowing that we are stabilized, we’re going to blow it out of the park next year. And you can bet the farm on that,” she said.

Union County

Union County Public Schools, the second-largest district in the Charlotte area, traditionally ranks as one of the state’s top performers. This year it had the second-highest overall proficiency rate of any district, according to the district’s tally. Union County’s proficiency was 69%, compared with a state average of 54%.

That’s partly because Union County has relatively low poverty. But it also performed well above state averages for white, Black, Hispanic, Asian, economically disadvantaged, disabled and English-learner students.

Cuthbertson High in Waxhaw, which got an A, was among the top 10 for growth in the state. And Union County saw the number of low-performing schools drop from 12 to seven.

Superintendent Andrew Houlihan commended the district’s educators for strong results.

“We have seen improvements each year since the pandemic. It has not been easy, but our teachers, principals and administrators are doing an amazing job providing high-quality instruction every day,” he said.

Cabarrus County

Cabarrus County Schools’ composite proficiency of 61% was well above the state average.

Cabarrus' white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, disabled and English-learner students outperformed their counterparts statewide, sometimes by large margins. For instance, Cabarrus logged a 46% pass rate for Black students, compared with 36% for Black students across the state.

Cabarrus had six low-performing schools, compared with seven in 2022.

Gaston County

Gaston County defied the state’s school calendar law to start classes early in 2022, leading to a string of copycats this year. One of the reasons districts want to start earlier in August is so high school students can take first-semester exams before winter break.

This year’s high school exam scores don’t provide a clear answer on whether that helped. Gaston County students outperformed the state on the high school biology exam and made bigger gains compared with 2022, but the results on high school Math I and English II exams were mixed.

Gaston’s overall proficiency rate of 50% is below the state average. Gaston’s white, Black, Asian and disabled students underperformed counterparts statewide, but Hispanic students in Gaston County did better than Hispanic students statewide.

The number of low-performing schools dropped from 24 to 17. And Highland School of Technology, a Gaston County magnet high school that earned an A, was among the top 20 for growth statewide.


Iredell-Statesville Schools saw less progress this year than most districts, with its overall proficiency level virtually flat at just over 55%. That’s slightly above the state average, but broken down by racial, economic disadvantage and other categories, Iredell-Statesville students scored similar to or below state averages.

Iredell-Statesville has 11 low-performing schools, one fewer than last year. And the district reports that 70% of schools increased their growth rating over 2022.

Lincoln County

Lincoln County’s overall proficiency rate of just under 61% topped the state average and showed a larger-than-average gain of three percentage points. Proficiency for economically disadvantaged students rose by seven percentage points. And the number of low-performing schools dropped from seven to one.

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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.