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What 5 Charlotte-area school district test scores say about pandemic learning loss

North Carolina School Districts performance scores were released publicly for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — School boards, lawmakers, and health officials all made pandemic-related decisions that altered the course of millions of children’s education. 

One of the most dramatic indicators is school test scores. North Carolina released its performance scores for all districts last week, marking the first time those results were made public since the onset of the pandemic. 

Because of the pandemic, the last time we saw this full set of numbers was for the 2018-19 school year. WCNC Charlotte compared five area districts' growth scores, the number of low-performing schools and the overall grade-level proficiency of students

State scores from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Cabarrus, Gaston, Union and Catawba were compared. Each district has a different makeup of school sizes, demographics, county-level funding and socioeconomic statuses. 

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RELATED: North Carolina releases performance grades for the 2021-22 school year

Grade-level proficiency

First on the list is grade-level proficiency, which measures if a student mastered grade-level concepts. 

Union County topped that list with 67.7% of its student scoring at grade level. 

“We have seen great progress since the 2020-2021 school year and I want to thank our teachers, principals, administrators, parents and students for working hard and staying the course," Superintendent Andrew Houlihan said in a news release after results were released. "While there is much to celebrate, there are also areas where we need to improve. The data shows that our students need more time in school in order to fully return to pre-pandemic levels of academic achievement." 

At a UCPS school board meeting, Houlihan said the same thing to the Union County Board of Education. UCPS was notably one of the first schools to return back to classes in person

Gaston County is at the bottom of the list with 48.4% of its students being grade-level proficient. This number is just below the state average of 51.4% of all North Carolina students being grade-level proficient. 

CMS is only slightly above Gaston County schools with 50.2%. Schools in Catawba and Cabarrus counties are in the middle of the pack with scores of 56.1% and 60.2% respectively. 

"As projected earlier this year in an analysis by the Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration, many North Carolina students will require months of additional learning time, possibly over several years, because of disruptions forced by the pandemic," Catawba County Schools superintendent Matthew Stover said in a press release. 

Growth numbers 

Many critics of the state's calculation for performance scores focus on the limited weight a school's growth numbers have. 

The state combines all of a school's test scores for 80% of the grade. The state also uses a complex algorithm to determine whether the school demonstrated growth and assigns that score 20% of the grade. 

CMS has 83% of its schools meeting or exceeding growth projections. Catawba County Schools is at the bottom of this list with 46% of its students meeting or exceeding growth projections. 

"Even as most schools across the state achieved at least expected growth, the A-F performance grades of many schools were depressed by lower-than-usual percentages of students earning a score of grade-level proficiency," Stover said. "With a weighting of 80% on the test scores and other achievement data, as expected, the school performance grades have shifted downward, consistent with the impact of the pandemic."

In Cabarrus County Schools, 80% of its school met or exceeded growth projections. 

"While the data reveals that CCS has not fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the numbers do give insights into the effects of pandemic learning conditions as well as several signs of encouragement for district leaders as they continue to accelerate recovery of learning lost due to pandemic stresses," Cabarrus County officials said in a press release. 

Gaston County and UCPS fall in the middle of the pack with 63% and 60% of its students meeting or exceeding growth projections. 

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Low-performing schools 

The last numbers WCNC Charlotte compared were the percent of low-performing schools these five districts had. 

Low-performing schools are those that receive a school performance grade of D or F and have not exceeded school growth expectations.  

Gaston County has the most with 47.1% of its schools being considered low performing. Compared to Cabarrus County schools where 17.9% of its schools are low performing. Catawba, CMS, and Union County Schools all have comparable amounts of low-performing schools. Catawba has 29.6%, CMS 29.2%, and UCPS 24.5%. 

Contact Shamarria Morrison at smorrison@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

WCNC Charlotte is committed to reporting on the issues facing the communities we serve. We tell the stories of people working to solve persistent social problems. We examine how problems can be solved or addressed to improve the quality of life and make a positive difference. WCNC Charlotte is seeking solutions for you. Send your tips or questions to newstips@wcnc.com.

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