D.C. Students Make Gains in Math, Reading

By Bill Turque, Washington Post - July 13, 2009

D.C. public school students continued to make gains in reading and math skills this year, according to preliminary results of the annual District Of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) tests released today.

Nearly half the District's public elementary students (49 percent) scored at proficiency levels in reading and math. Reading scores last year were 46 percent; math scores rose from 40 percent proficiency. In 2007, fewer than a third of elementary students were proficient in either category.

Gains at the middle and high school levels were more modest. Reading proficiency grew from 39 percent to 41 percent; math proficiency rose from 36 percent to 40 percent.

Most striking at the secondary level was the reduction in the math achievement gap between white and minority students, which closed from 70 to 50 percent.

D.C. public charter schools, which serve about one-third of the District's 70,000 schoolchildren, also showed a rise in test scores. They registered their biggest gains at the secondary level, increasing math proficiency by nine percentage points and reading by nearly seven.

Overall, however, the school system's scores did not improve at the same rate as they did between 2oo7 and 2oo8, when elementary proficiency levels in reading and math rose eight and 11 points, respectively. But Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said today that they were pleased nonetheless.

"It's very good news," Fenty (D) said.

Scores for individual schools will be available in about two weeks, the district said.

The annual exams, given in grades 3 through 8 and to high school sophomores, are important because they are used by federal officials to assess whether District schools have achieved "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward proficiency benchmarks established by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Persistent failure to reach those targets can trigger provisions in the law that would require Rhee to make drastic changes in a school's staff or academic programs. Last year, only 41 of 126 public schools reached AYP, including just three high schools; 18 of 60 eligible public charter schools made the cut. Twenty-nine D.C. public schools (down from 50 in 2007) have student proficiency rates of less than 20 percent in reading or math.

The set of test results are the second under Rhee, hired by Fenty in June 2007 to overhaul a school district widely regarded as among the nation's worst. Although experts say it takes at least three rounds of testing to determine what impact -- if any -- a school district's leadership is having on classroom achievement, this year's scores were still a much-anticipated snapshot of the status of Rhee's reform efforts.

They also are a critical measure for Fenty, who faces reelection in 2010 after having made school transformation a top priority. Continued improvement in test scores also would strengthen the District's pitch to families that its public school system -- which has steadily lost enrollment over the years -- is headed in the right direction.

Rhee mobilized the schools to prepare students for the DC-CAS, establishing "Saturday Academies" that offered extra instruction and diverting many hours of teaching time during the school week to test preparation.

The District will learn more about where students stand relative to their peers in other cities this fall when it receives math test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The test evaluates math, reading and science skills of fourth- and eighth-graders in 11 urban school, systems, including he District, New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

The most recent scores, from 2007, showed D.C. schoolchildren at or near the bottom in every measure. Reading and science scores are expected to be available sometime next year.

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