Huge achievement gaps persist in D.C. schools

August 6, 2011

The gulf in academic achievement separating public schools in the District’s poorest neighborhoods from those in its most affluent has narrowed slightly in some instances but remains vast, an analysis of 2011 test score data show.

Children in Ward 7 and 8 schools trailed their Ward 3 peers in reading and math pass rates by huge margins — from 41 to 56 percentage points — on this year’s D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams. The tests are given annually to students in grades 3 through 8 and 10.

The figures, made public last week, show that despite some signs of overall progress, students in schools east of the Anacostia River — who represent nearly a third of the city’s traditional public school enrollment — have yet to be lifted by a reform effort that will enter its fifth year this month. In Ward 8 elementary schools, for example, 28 percent of students read at proficiency level or better, down about 2 percentage points from 2010. That level is almost identical to the pass rate in 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took control of the city school system. The pass rate this year in Ward 3 elementary schools was 84 percent, leaving a gap of 56 points.

Elementary reading pass rates in Ward 7 declined for the third-straight year after growing more than 10 points in 2008. Its schools trail Ward 3’s on that measure by 51 points.

The data on school system performance in Wards 7 and 8 also form a striking contrast to the record of some public charter schools in those communities, where pass rates this year were comparable to top schools elsewhere in the city. Elementary students at Achievement Prep in Ward 8, for example, scored 87 percent proficient or better in math and 60 percent in reading.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson was unavailable for comment last week. D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said the new data show how much work there is to be done. “It’s unacceptable,” he said. “It’s absolutely wrong.” He announced that he will convene a roundtable on middle school issues in September.

A majority of D.C. students don't attend their neighborhood public schools, opting for out-of-boundary enrollment through the lottery process or for a public charter school. Still, the achievement gaps among schools based in various sectors of the city reflect the larger pattern of poverty and economic isolation in Wards 7 and 8. Nearly 40 percent of Ward 8 families with children under 18 have incomes below poverty level, according to census data. The median household income is $31,188. In Ward 7, more than 34 percent of families with minor children live in poverty, and the median household income is $34,966.

In Ward 3, centered in Northwest Washington, less than 4 percent of families with minor children are below the poverty line. Median household income is $97,690.

Even the evidence of modest improvement only underscored the gaps that separate children who are in the same school system. Ward 8 schools had larger gains than those in Ward 3 in elementary and secondary math pass rates this year, posting 4-percentage- point increases in each category. Ward 3’s secondary pass rates actually dipped 2 points. But Ward 3 schools are still more than 50 points ahead of Ward 8’s.

Ward 7 secondary math pass rates have nearly tripled since 2007, from about 13 percent to about 37 percent. This year’s jump of 7 points on that measure was the largest single gain by any ward in the city, largely on the strength of growth at three middle schools: Kelly Miller, Ron Brown and Sousa. But Ward 7 students still trail Ward 3 peers by more than 40 points.

The new test data also comes on the heels of evidence that the city’s top teachers — as defined by school officials — are not serving the children who need them most. Only 71 of the 663 teachers who received top ratings on this year’s IMPACT evaluation worked in the 41 schools in Wards 7 and 8. By contrast, the 10 schools in Ward 3 have 135 “highly effective” educators.

Many teachers say the evaluation system creates a false picture because it disadvantages educators in high-poverty schools. But other advocates say the test results underscore the need for higher-quality teachers in areas such as Wards 7 and 8.

“It just speaks volumes for the need to identify and recruit more talented human capital. We have to get those individuals in front of kids,” said David Pickens, executive director of D.C. School Reform Now, a nonprofit group that supports school improvement.

Other sections of the city also performed poorly on the 2011 tests. Schools at all levels in Ward 4 lost ground, according to test data. Secondary math pass rates declined 9 percentage points, largely due to double-digit drops at its two high schools, Coolidge and Roosevelt. Elementary reading pass rates in Ward 5 dropped by 6 points, to 36 percent.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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