D.C. Students See Big Academic Gains

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

D.C. public school students made significant achievement gains during the past academic year, according to preliminary test data released yesterday.

The math proficiency level for elementary school students increased the most, by 11 percentage points. In 2007, the scores climbed by three percentage points. Elementary students' reading scores rose by eight percentage points, compared with one percentage point last year. Students in secondary schools gained nine percentage points in reading and math, compared with one-point and four-point growth, respectively, last year.

The number of schools making adequate yearly progress in reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind law rose from 31 to 47.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said the initial results demonstrate that the approach she used in her first year in office is working. Rhee said previously that she did not think test scores would receive a bump from her initiatives for a few years.

Although he applauded the results, Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, said it is impossible to draw broad conclusions about the numbers without school-by-school data, which will be released later.

"It's unclear how much of the gain was from the efforts this year and how much was contributed by the former administration," he said. There is "insufficient evidence to try to sort out which parts of the reforms produced which gains," he said.

Since taking over the system in June 2007, Rhee has been criticized for her hard-charging style, requesting more accountability from principals and teachers, increasing test preparation programs and emphasizing data-driven results.

"We made every one of those decisions because we felt that this is what was needed to happen . . . so achievement can be maximized. I fully believe we will see the upward trajectory as long as we're making the hard decisions," Rhee said at a news conference at Plummer Elementary School in Southeast Washington, where reading scores jumped 17 percentage points and math by 15. In the 2007 academic year, the reading scores rose by two percentage points and math by six.

"I wasn't expecting to see such large gains early on," Rhee said. "It's a testament to what kids can do. I believe the children in the District of Columbia can achieve at high levels."

In 2006, the number of schools achieving proficiency dropped, which officials and outside experts said then was an expected byproduct of administering the new, more difficult D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS). It replaced the Stanford 9, which used multiple-choice questions and tested students on national standards.

Then-Superintendent Clifford B. Janey introduced the DC-CAS exam, which requires students to give short responses. It was part of an effort to upgrade instruction by aligning testing with new learning standards.

School system officials said yesterday that this year's gains resulted in part from programs that accustom students to the DC-CAS format.

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