Unpacking ‘moonshot’ CMS goals after a lackluster year in student test scores

·5 min read

With a staggeringly low number of public school students appearing college or career ready in key subjects like math and English, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ district leaders have aggressive goals to make improvements — particularly in test results among students who are Black or Latino.

The school board on Tuesday approved updates to a broad plan, setting benchmarks by grade levels to close achievement gaps and significantly increase the percentage of students who pass mandatory North Carolina K-12 exams each year.

For example, this fall saw only 4.5% of CMS high school students scoring high enough on exams to be considered performing at the college or career level in math skills. That’s compared to the statewide average of 6.5%

Previously, the district set a three-year goal to bring 16.4% of students up to that level in math test results. On Tuesday, the board set a more aggressive goal: 25% by October 2024.

“It’s extremely ambitious — is it a moonshot? It is,” Board chair Elyse Dashew said of one of the goals. “Our kids deserve that. It is going to take some really different ways of doing things … including support from our community.”

The plan comes after months of discussion by district administrators and board leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated academic challenges for CMS students, particularly students of color, Superintendent Earnest Winston said.

While CMS students’ pass/fail rate in subjects like reading, math and science in the last academic year were only slightly worse than statewide results, these outcomes locally revealed prolonged virtual learning led to most of CMS students failing state exams.

In CMS, 44.6% of students in all subjects passed the exams, according to state data released in September. At the time, Winston said the pandemic and resulting academic decline represented the “most significant disruption of public education in our lifetimes.”

Last week, WFAE reported that CMS’ reliance on virtual learning led to the drops in test scores worse than neighboring districts, including Union County. In those districts with better scores, students had more face time total in classrooms while CMS maintained stricter policies about virtual learning.

Here’s a look at the new benchmarks CMS says it’s working toward over the next four years. The district says next steps will include building a strategy to improve student learning overall and address disparities faced by students of color.

English Language Arts

Among third graders who score the highest on standardized tests (meaning on pace for college or career-ready academic abilities), CMS had 29.5% in Oct. 2021. The statewide average when test scores came out in September was 33.7%.

Among Black and Hispanic third-grade students, the statewide average was around 17.9%. The percentage was about 16% in CMS. That’s far off the previous goal CMS leaders set in 2018 — to improve students’ scores in that cohort to 65% testing at a 4 or 5 level (college and career-ready) in English Language Arts.

On Tuesday, the board lowered the expectation — to 50% of Black and Hispanic third graders scoring a 4 or 5 by 2024.

“I’m not happy with 50%. I’m just not,” board member Rhonda Cheek said. “There’s a name behind each of those kids — 3,500 kids we’re leaving behind.”

But district leaders said it’s still an aggressive goal that is attainable. Winston said the district has not seen that type of growth.

“But we heard we ought to aspire higher,” he said. “We will have to make adjustments. Teachers, great teachers, highly effective teachers (are) what we will need more of to accomplish this goal. That will require additional resources.”


Among high school students who scored at the College and Career level in math, CMS had 4.5% in Oct. 2021. The statewide average was 6.5%.

In Math 1 for grades 9-12, the pass rate among Black students dropped from 10.2% last year to less than 5%. For Asian students, it dropped from 28.9% to 16.8% this year.

School board members have increased the goal for percentage of high school students who score at the college and career level in math to 25% by Oct. 2024.

College-level course or high level Career and Technical Education course

On Tuesday, the board also approved standards to ensure the equitable treatment of students, which include giving all students access to course offerings that are diverse and rigorous.

Leaders hope to increase the percentage of high school graduates taking and passing at least one college-level course or high level Career and Technical Education course from 58% in June 2021 to 75% by June 2024.

Students in North Carolina can earn one or more endorsements on their high school diploma, according to the Department of Public Instruction. Endorsements indicate that “students have completed specific course concentrations preparing them to be ready for careers and/or college,” according to the site.

Among graduates in the district earning a state high school endorsement, CMS surpassed its previous milestone for 2021, which was 60%. The board bumped the bar even more: from 61.2% of graduates earning a state high school endorsement in June 2021 to a goal of 75% by June 2024.

World Languages and arts

Among students who participated in a World Languages course, 35.6% were in middle school and 50% in high school in June 2020.

The board wants to see those percentages increase to 50% of middle school students participating in a World Languages course by June 2024 and 55% of high school students.

Among students in grades 6-12 taking one or more course in visual or performing arts, 77.6% were in middle school and 38.2% in high school in June 2020. School leaders would like those numbers to rise to 80% of students in middle school and 40% in high school in June 2024.

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