Mecklenburg County Commissioners cited the large number of underperforming schools and persistent racial gaps in 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, accused the county of mutilating the facts and trying to play a watchdog role that legally falls to the school board.
For example, School Board President Elyse Dashew and CMS Director of Government Affairs Charles Jeter took issue with County Director Dena Diorio’s claim that 42 of 166 schools, or 25% of all schools, are considered to be inefficient. They say CMS actually has 176 schools.
Diorio data reflects what the state reports on poorly performing CMS schools. As of 2019 – the last year assessments were done before the pandemic disrupted state testing – the state assigned alphabetical grades to 166 CMS schools and 42 sufficiently assessed students’ skills and growth. to get the low performance label. The smaller total may come from the fact that some alternative schools do not qualify for letter grades and other ratings.
CMS looks bad, but other districts too
CMS had the highest number of poorly performing schools in the state (it’s also the second largest district). The 25% rate was high enough to give 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 as low performing. This includes Guilford County, in the Greensboro area, the state’s third-largest school district, which had 35 underperforming schools. That’s almost 30% of its total.
Others in the Charlotte area with more than 25% of schools ranked low in 2019 include Anson County, Rowan-Salisbury and Kannapolis.
And the alarm clock?
Diorio pointed out the contrast to public schools in Wake County in the Raleigh area, the only district larger than CMS. In a presentation to the Black Political Caucus, she said 26 of Wake’s 176 schools were rated as poorly performing. The list of states actually shows 30 underperforming Wake schools, out of 180 that achieved grades in 2019. That’s just under 17%, below the CMS rate.
But it’s not clear that this means the schools in Wake are better than those in Mecklenburg County.
These scores are based on student performance on state exams in reading, math, and science. Across the country, standardized test scores are strongly tied to demographics: White and Asian students on average outperform black and Hispanic students. Students also tend to score lower when they come from low-income families or are still learning English.
Simply put, Wake has more students who tend to perform better and CMS has more students who face greater challenges. In 2018-19, the year the assessments are based on, Wake had a combined total of nearly 89,000 White and Asian students, compared to nearly 51,000 in CMS. Meanwhile, CMS had a combined total of about 92,000 black and Hispanic students, compared to 65,000 in Wake.
CMS also had more applicants classified as English learners or economically disadvantaged than Wake, according to data provided by CMS.
CMS has many schools where the majority of students are black or Hispanic and come from low income families. Almost all of the 42 CMS schools classified as low performing fit this description.
Breakdowns paint a different picture
To get a clearer picture of whether the 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 classified as “college and career ready.” The same goes for economically disadvantaged students and English learners. Asian students in Wake County have outperformed their counterparts in CMS and across the state.
But because white CMS students do so much better than state averages, it still leaves CMS with larger than average racial gaps. For example, the ‘college and career ready’ grade rate for white CMS students on all 2019 exams was 73.7%, compared to an average of 57% for white students and the rate of Wake County by 68.5%.
For black students, the “college and career loan” 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 college students, compared to 40 points in Wake and 30 points statewide.
Nation’s Report Card exams, which burst results for 27 major school districts across the country paint a similar picture. CMS shows huge variations based on race and family income, but does better than most other districts (no other Carolinian districts are included).
No one solved this problem
In general, test results and other data rarely answer questions about whether specific programs or policies make a difference. This is because there is so much going on in schools and the lives of students, and it all interacts to help or hinder academic performance.
The data county officials presented is generally accurate, and few would dispute their urgent call to end racial inequalities. But the numbers also highlight a challenge: Will putting pressure on CMS leaders lead to improvement?
The gaps that appear in CMS are almost universal and have persisted for decades despite changes in school boards and superintendents.
“I don’t know if a school district in the country has succeeded, completely and permanently in closing the achievement gap,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Grandes Ecoles de la Ville.
Is Superintendent Earnest Winston to blame?
During the budget debate, County Committee Chairman George Dunlap 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 degrees than is traditional for a leader of a large school district – which was widely reported at the time.
Student performance data says nothing about Winston’s performance. The state’s most recent scores come from the school year that ended in June 2019. Winston became superintendent two months later – and six months later the pandemic closed schools. This means that there are no state test results for 2020, which is why the list of worst performing schools has not been updated.
This year, the students took exams, but the results will not be available until the fall. And with all the disruption caused by the pandemic, no one expects it to be comparable to previous years.
CMS released data on grades and class attendance this year, which shows many schools are taking severe damage during the pandemic. Likewise, CMS has seen enrollment drop this year, and Dunlap cited CMS’s loss of “market share” as a sign that people have lost confidence in the leadership of the district. But again, these trends are manifesting state and nationwide in the wake of the pandemic. Mecklenburg County has seen a growing share of its students choosing charter schools or homeschooling, but local numbers are tracking the trends for all school districts in North Carolina.
Next: Can they get together?
Immediately after commissioners approved their budget on Tuesday evening, CMS leaders said they would initiate the dispute settlement process described in state law. The first step is a joint meeting within seven days – unlikely to resolve the dispute, given the many meetings that led to the stalemate.
If that fails, the two councils will engage in mediation, with sessions conducted behind closed doors.