D.C. students’ proficiency rates inch upward on annual city tests

Average student proficiency rates on the District’s annual standardized tests inched up in 2014, increasing 1.4 percentage points in math and less than one percentage point in reading, results that city leaders called steady-if-slow progress in improving academic prospects for the District’s children.

Even with the uptick, there were some unsettling data points: Proficiency rates among students learning English as a second language declined in both subjects and in both traditional and charter schools. Latino students’ reading proficiency rates also dropped in both sectors, while the traditional school system saw reading proficiency fall among its economically disadvantaged students.

“I have to be honest with you and say I’m disappointed” that the growth wasn’t greater, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said at a news conference Thursday morning outside Stanton Elementary School in Southeast Washington, citing the hard work she sees teachers and students investing in schools each day. “We need to pick up the work; we need to turn it up.”

Citywide, 54 percent of students scored high enough to be considered proficient in math in 2014, and almost half — 49.9 percent — were considered proficient in reading. The city’s wide achievement gaps did not narrow: 44 percent of African American students were proficient in reading, for example, compared with 92 percent of white students.

The incremental overall increase comes one year after city leaders announced four-point gains in both subjects. They hailed those results as “historic” and said they showed that the District’s approach to improving schools — including the advent of mayoral control and the rapid growth of charter schools — is working.

On Thursday, Henderson and other city leaders highlighted longer-term, double-digit in­creases in proficiency rates across the District since 2007, when the mayor took over the schools. And they emphasized out-sized gains at individual schools.

“It’s not an easy road,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said. “It requires steadiness and it requires resolve, but I think the progress we made over the past few years . . . shows we ought to continue the course we have charted to improve public education.”

With the city’s move to exams that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards next year, this is the last time that D.C. CAS scores will be used to evaluate the city’s students.

Performance on the new tests — known as PARCC — will not be comparable with student performance on the city’s past tests; it will be difficult to measure long-term progress — or decline — until several years from now. Proficiency rates are widely expected to drop in the District and elsewhere as states transition to new curriculums and new exams.

District officials spoke beneath a tent pitched outside Stanton Elementary, which is under renovation to modernize and expand its building to accommodate more students.

The Ward 8 school was among the lowest-performing in the District several years ago, and a Philadelphia-based charter school operator, Scholar Academies, was brought in to turn the school around.

Though Stanton’s math proficiency dipped this year, its scores have improved and its culture has been transformed since Scholar’s arrival, making it one of the more promising school-improvement efforts in the city. It also served Thursday as a symbol of cooperation between charter and traditional schools at a time when the two sectors are at odds over funding, planning and other issues.

Gray called it “a wonderful example of the kind of innovation that is taking place.”

Traditional and charter schools posted similar increases in proficiency rates in 2014, although charter schools, as a group, continue to outperform the traditional school system.

Among charters, nearly 60 percent of students were proficient in math, an increase of one percentage point since 2013; 53.4 percent of students were proficient in reading, up about half a percentage point.

Among traditional schools, 51 percent of students were proficient in math, up 1.6 percentage points, and close to 48 percent were proficient in reading, up about one-third of a percentage point.

Since 2007, proficiency rates among all D.C. students have increased 23 percentage points in math and 14 percentage points in reading.

While math performance in the traditional schools has steadily increased during the past five years, reading performance has been uneven.

For African American students, reading proficiency rates are down from a high of 41 percent in 2009 to 39 percent this year, and rates for students learning English are down from a high of 47 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2014. Poor children and children with disabilities also have seen reading proficiency rates fall since 2009.

Henderson attributed the declines in part to ongoing churn in traditional schools, as more students leave for charter schools or depart the city.

“We have lost a number of high-performing African American kids and radically increased the number of low-performing students,” Henderson said. “The miles we have to travel are sometimes further year in and year out.”

She said the school district has been emphasizing efforts to improve reading instruction. “If we are going to be successful, we have to all be experts in teaching reading,” she said.

Schools officials said an infusion of new funding for at-risk students should help principals provide new supports to struggling students. In charter schools, proficiency rates among black, Latino and poor children are higher than they were five years ago.

Jesús Aguirre, the District’s state superintendent of education, applauded high school teachers and students for making some of the most significant gains this year. Tenth-grade math proficiency rates rose by 4.1 points in traditional schools and 7.4 points in charter schools, and reading proficiency rates increased 3.8 points in traditional schools and three points in charter schools.

Students also took science and writing exams. Citywide science proficiency grew nearly three points, to 45 percent, while writing proficiency dropped a point, to 50 percent.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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