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What Data On Race Gaps And Low-Performing Schools Say About Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

CMS students in class.
Gwendolyn Glenn

Mecklenburg County commissioners have cited the large number of low-performing schools and persistent racial gaps on test scores as factors in Tuesday night's decision to withhold $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. They say they want to force CMS to produce a better school improvement plan.

CMS leaders, meanwhile, have accused the county of mangling facts and trying to take an oversight role that legally falls to the school board.

For instance, school board Chair Elyse Dashew and CMS government affairs director Charles Jeter have taken issue with County Manager Dena Diorio's claim that 42 of 166 schools, or 25% of all schools, are rated low performing. They say CMS actually has 176 schools.

Diorio's data reflects what the state reports on CMS low-performing schools. As of 2019 — the last year the ratings were done before the pandemic disrupted state testing — the state gave letter grades to 166 CMS schools, and 42 rated low enough on student proficiency and growth to get the low-performing label. The smaller total may come from the fact that some alternative schools don't qualify for letter grades and other ratings.

CMS Looks Bad, But So Do Other Districts

CMS had the largest number of low-performing schools in the state (it's also the second-largest district). The 25% rate was high enough to earn CMS a low-performing district rating.

What Diorio didn't mention was that 34 of the state's 115 districts had even higher percentages of schools rated low-performing. That includes the Greensboro area's Guilford County, the state’s third-largest school district, which had 35 low-performing schools. That almost 30% of its total.

Others in the Charlotte region with more than 25% of schools rated low-performing in 2019 include Anson County, Rowan-Salisbury and Kannapolis.

Dena LP schools screen shot.png
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio talks to the Black Political Caucus about CMS low-performing schools.

What About Wake?

Diorio has highlighted the contrast with the Raleigh area's Wake County Public Schools, the only district larger than CMS. In a presentation to the Black Political Caucus, she said 26 of Wake's 176 schools were rated low-performing. The state list actually shows 30 low-performing Wake schools, out of 180 that got ratings in 2019. That's just under 17%, lower than the CMS rate.

But it's not clear that that means Wake schools are better than those in Mecklenburg County.

These ratings are based on student performance on state reading, math and science exams. Across the country, scores on standardized tests are strongly linked to demographics: White and Asian students, on average, outperform Black and Hispanic ones. Students also tend to log lower scores when they’re from low-income families or are still learning English.

Oakdale class 0215.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
Oakdale Elementary is one of 42 CMS schools that serve mostly Hispanic and Black students that rated low-performing in 2019.

Simply put, Wake has more of the students who tend to score better — and CMS has more of the students who face bigger challenges. In 2018-19, the year the ratings are based on, Wake had a combined total of almost 89,000 white and Asian students, compared with almost 51,000 in CMS. Meanwhile, CMS had a combined total of about 92,000 Black and Hispanic students, compared with 65,000 in Wake.

CMS also had more test-takers who were classified as English learners or economically disadvantaged than Wake, according to data provided by CMS.

CMS has numerous schools where the majority of students are Black or Hispanic and come from low-income families. Almost all the 42 CMS schools rated low-performing fit that description.

Breakdowns Paint A Different Picture

To get a clearer picture of whether differences in test scores simply reflect student demographics, it helps to compare students within the same category.

For all 2019 test scores combined, CMS outperformed Wake — and the state average — on the percentage of Black, Hispanic and white students rated “college and career ready.” The same is true for economically disadvantaged students and English learners. Wake County’s Asian students outscored their counterparts in CMS and statewide.

But because CMS white students perform so much better than state averages, that still leaves CMS with larger-than-average racial gaps. For instance, the rate of "college and career ready" scores for CMS white students on all 2019 exams was 73.7%, compared with a state average of 57% for white students and Wake County's rate of 68.5%.

For Black students, the "college and career ready" rate was 32% in CMS, 28.3% in Wake and 26.6% statewide. That leaves CMS with a 42-point gap between Black and white students, compared with 40 points in Wake and 30 points statewide.

The "Nation's Report Card" exams, which break out results for 27 large school districts across the country, paint a similar picture. CMS shows huge gaps based on race and family income but does better than most other districts (Wake County is not included).

No One Has Solved This

In general, test scores and other data seldom answer questions about whether specific programs or policies are making a difference. That’s because there’s just so much going on in schools and students’ lives, and it all interacts to help or hinder academic performance.

The data county officials have presented is generally accurate, and few would dispute their call for urgency in ending racial inequities. But the numbers also highlight a challenge: Will applying pressure to CMS leaders result in improvement?

The gaps that show up in CMS are nearly universal and have persisted for decades, across changes in school boards and superintendents.

"I don’t know that any school district in the country has successfully, completely, and permanently closed the achievement gap," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Is Superintendent Earnest Winston To Blame?

During the budget debate, county commission Chair George Dunlap has also raised questions about the qualifications and performance of Superintendent Earnest Winston, who was hired in August 2019.

The school board hired Winston with less administrative experience and fewer academic credentials than is traditional for a leader of a large school district — something that was extensively reported at the time.

The student performance data say nothing about Winston's performance. The most recent state scores are from the school year that ended in June 2019. Winston became superintendent two months later — and six months after that the pandemic closed schools. That means there are no state test scores for 2020, which is why the low-performing school list hasn’t been updated.

This year students did take exams, but results won't be available until fall. And with all the disruption the pandemic has caused, no one expects them to be comparable to previous years.

CMS has released some data about classroom grades and attendance this year, which show many schools taking big hits during the pandemic. Likewise, CMS saw enrollment plunge this year, and Dunlap has cited the loss of CMS “market share” as a sign that people have lost confidence in district leadership. But again, these trends are playing out across the state and nation as a result of the pandemic. Mecklenburg County has seen a steadily growing share of its students choose charter schools or home-schooling, but the local numbers track trends for all North Carolina school districts.

Next: Can They Come Together?

Immediately after commissioners approved their budget Tuesday night, CMS leaders said they'll launch the dispute resolution process outlined in state law. The first step is a joint meeting within seven days — unlikely to clear up the dispute, given the numerous meetings that led to the standoff.

If that fails, the two boards will engage in mediation, with sessions conducted in private.

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Corrected: June 3, 2021 at 8:09 AM EDT
Updated June 3 to correct information about North Carolina districts included in the "Nation's Report Card" district analysis.
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.