Rocky River High senior Alisha Thomas is celebrated by Clear Creek Elementary students before her 2017 graduation. Alex Kormann Observer file photo
Rocky River High senior Alisha Thomas is celebrated by Clear Creek Elementary students before her 2017 graduation. Alex Kormann Observer file photo

Your Schools

Covering public, private and charter school education, with the focus on CMS

Your Schools

High grad rates, low test scores pose troubling questions about CMS diplomas

By Ann Doss Helms

ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

September 07, 2017 11:18 AM

UPDATED September 07, 2017 05:52 PM

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Ardrey Kell and Rocky River high schools both logged graduation rates well over 90 percent last year. That’s generally viewed as a sign that they’ve achieved their goal of preparing students for adult life.

But college readiness exams show most students from Ardrey Kell qualify for admission to UNC schools, while only 24 percent from Rocky River do. Likewise, more than 90 percent of Ardrey Kell students passed state English, biology and math exams, compared with fewer than half of Rocky River students.

North Carolina’s school accountability reports, released Thursday, are designed to celebrate success and highlight areas that need change. Yet the 2017 data show persistent challenges and troubling contradictions.

“There are some stubborn concerns that we’re all going to have to focus on,” state Superintendent Mark Johnson said Thursday.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

For instance, recent years have seen a statewide mandatory push to make sure students can read on grade level by third grade. Yet third-grade reading proficiency stayed virtually flat, at roughly 57 percent in CMS and North Carolina. That translates to thousands of children who must be retained or placed in special classes to help them catch up this year.

In CMS, 44 of 107 elementary schools had third-grade reading proficiency below 50 percent, with a low of 19 percent at the high-poverty Thomasboro Academy.

Meanwhile, third-graders at 17 CMS elementary schools logged reading pass rates over 80 percent. The highest, listed imprecisely as “over 95 percent” because of a quirk in state reporting, is at the district’s lowest-poverty neighborhood school, Providence Spring.

CMS has traditionally logged strong success at neighborhood schools in the north and south suburbs, where most students are white or Asian and come from middle-class or affluent homes, as well as at a handful of magnet schools that attract strong students of all races and income levels. And like districts across America, it has struggled to create similar results at high-poverty urban schools.

This year the number of schools designated low-performing rose from 489 to 505, with 40 of them – all with very high poverty levels – in CMS.

The one area where gaps seem to be closing is graduation rates. Schools that used to lose 30 or 40 percent of their freshmen by the time diplomas were handed out have seen graduation rates soar in recent years. This year only three CMS high schools – Garinger, Harding and Cochrane – landed below 80 percent, and those were all in the high 70s. West Charlotte High, which had been targeted for an infusion of private support after logging a 54 percent graduation rate in 2011, hit 88 percent in 2017, up from 86 percent the year before.

This year’s data bring few major changes on any measure, either for CMS or statewide. CMS, which logged an 89.6 percent graduation rate in 2016, had hoped to crack 90 percent this year, but instead dipped slightly to 89.4 percent. That still tops the state’s 86.5 percent rate, and Wake County’s 88.5 percent.

But the bragging rights that come with those numbers are undermined by the wide gaps among CMS high schools on state exams and the ACT, which all juniors take to gauge college readiness.

Some schools, such as Ardrey Kell, Hough and Providence, have very high graduation rates accompanied by similar showings on the ACT and state exams. All are suburban neighborhood schools.

But high-poverty high schools such as West Charlotte, Garinger, West Mecklenburg, Harding and Vance logged pass rates and college readiness scores well below 50 percent, despite graduating most students in four years. And that pattern extends to more diverse schools, such as Rocky River in Mint Hill and North Mecklenburg in Huntersville. Olympic High in southwest Charlotte, which is divided into five career-themed small schools, logged a wide range of college readiness on one campus, from 66 percent at the math-science school to 26 percent at schools for leadership and advanced manufacturing.

That creates an ongoing debate: Are the exams really a good measure of readiness for college and careers? Are CMS diplomas meaningful if students are claiming them without the academic skills to succeed?

“What we’re doing now is we’re taking a look at what does it really mean to be a graduate of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,” Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Thursday. “Does the diploma mean the same thing at Garinger that it does at South Meck?”

The rising rates have been accompanied by a decrease in the number of credits required – from 28 to 24 in CMS, still two more than the state requires – and an increase in alternative paths to earn those credits. Credit recovery programs, which are growing across the country, offer a second chance for students who have failed a class, using a combination of live teachers and online instruction to let students demonstrate that they’ve mastered the skills they didn’t get the first time.

In 2017, CMS graduated just over 9,000 students. Of those, 715 had at least one credit earned through the recovery program, and only 74 had four or more credits earned that way, the district reports.

Skeptics say the program lets the district boost its rates without giving students the full benefit of the courses. Wilcox, who started work July 3, has asked his staff to scrutinize the program, including a manual review of the transcript of 39 graduates who had five or more credit recovery units. Those students were scattered among nine schools, according to an overview report.

Both Wilcox and his predecessor, Ann Clark, have said they want to ensure the value of a diploma by making sure students have not just met the minimum requirements but accumulate either college credits or industry certifications that would start them on the path to higher education or a skilled trade. All high schools offer the opportunity to earn credits through Advanced Placement classes and college partnerships. CMS is expanding its career-technical program to offer more pathways to jobs.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

CMS high schools

The grade is the state’s rating, based mostly on performance on state exams. “Passed exams” is the composite pass rate for math I, English II and biology exams. “Growth” rates students’ performance on those exams compared with their scores on previous state exams. “ACT college readiness” is the percent of 11th-graders who earned a score that would qualify for admission to the UNC system. “Graduation rate” is the percent of ninth-graders who earned diplomas four years later. Students who switch schools are removed from individual school tallies, leading most schools to have rates above the district average of 89 percent.

Schools that recently opened or don’t include all grade levels may not have data in all categories. When rates fall below 5 percent or above 95 percent, the state does not report specifics for student privacy reasons.

School

Grade

Passed exams

Growth

ACT college ready

Graduation rate

Ardrey Kell

A

91 percent

Exceeded

88 percent

>95 percent

Berry Technology

B

76 percent

Met

56 percent

>95 percent

Butler

B

69 percent

Exceeded

58 percent

93 percent

Cato Middle College

A

NA

NA

95

>95 percent

Cochrane

D

43 percent

Not met

61 percent

78 percent

Davis Military/Leadership

D

50 percent

Not met

59 percent

90 percent

East Mecklenburg

B

65 percent

Exceeded

55 percent

91 percent

eLearning Academy

B

51 percent

Not met

77 percent

>95 percent

Garinger

C

32 percent

Exceeded

19 percent

76 percent

Harding

C

31 percent

Met

22 percent

77 percent

Harper Middle College

A

NA

NA

>95 percent

NA

Hawthorne

B

79 percent

Met

62 percent

>95 percent

Hopewell High

C

52 percent

Not met

41 percent

89 percent

Hough

A

81 percent

Exceeded

81 percent

93 percent

Independence

B

59 percent

Exceeded

53 percent

89 percent

Levine Middle College

A

NA

NA

>95

>95 percent

Mallard Creek

B

59 percent

Exceeded

51 percent

>95 percent

Myers Park

B

76 percent

Exceeded

76 percent

94 percent

North Mecklenburg

C

50 percent

Not met

43 percent

>95 percent

Northwest Arts

B

81 percent

Met

76 percent

>95 percent

Olympic Biotech

B

59 percent

Exceeded

53 percent

>95 percent

Olympic Leadership

C

27 percent

Not met

26 percent

88 percent

Olympic Math/Engineering

B

69 percent

Met

66 percent

>95 percent

Olympic Renaissance

C

42 percent

Not met

50 percent

90 percent

Olympic TEAM

D

33 percent

Met

26 percent

>95 percent

Performance Learning Center

D

29 percent

Not met

38 percent

93 percent

Providence

A+

89 percent

Exceeded

91 percent

>95 percent

Rocky River

C

41 percent

Met

24 percent

94 percent

South Mecklenburg

B

69 percent

Exceeded

63 percent

93 percent

UNCC Engineering

B

77 percent

Met

78 percent

NA

Vance

C

39 percent

Met

28 percent

91 percent

West Charlotte

C

33 percent

Exceeded

18 percent

88 percent

West Mecklenburg

D

29 percent

Not met

21 percent

81 percent

Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction