D.C. Schools Show Progress on Reading, Math Tests

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

D.C. public school students continue to improve their reading and math skills, and the achievement gap between African American and white students has narrowed, according to preliminary test results released yesterday.

The biggest gains in the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams were in the elementary grades, where almost half of the students tested were deemed proficient: 48.6 percent in math (up from 40.5 percent in 2008) and 49.4 percent in reading (up from 45.6 percent in 2008). In 2007, fewer than a third of elementary students were considered 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, from 36 percent to 40 percent.

The annual exams, given in grades 3 through 8 and to high school sophomores, provide a much-awaited snapshot of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's effort to transform the District's 45,000-student school system, widely regarded as one of the country's weakest.

The results also are important because federal officials use them to assess whether schools have achieved "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward proficiency benchmarks established by the federal 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.

On that count, District schools lost ground this year. Just 27 percent of public schools -- 34 of 128 -- made AYP. That is down from 31 percent -- 45 of 143 -- in 2008. Rhee closed and consolidated some schools at the end of the 2008 academic year because of low enrollment.

This year's AYP targets require D.C. elementary schools to show that 60.5 percent of students are proficient or better in reading and 55.2 percent in math. In secondary schools, 57.6 percent of students are supposed to meet that standard in reading and 55.4 percent in math.

D.C. officials said test scores are only one factor used in determining yearly progress. Attendance, graduation rates and student turnout for the tests are other important elements.

In announcing the systemwide scores yesterday, Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who is up for reelection next year after staking out school improvement as his top priority, focused on the rising numbers.

"We're thrilled at the progress we've made this year," Rhee said at a news conference on the steps of Drew Elementary School in Northeast Washington, attributing the improvement to the hard work of teachers, principals and students. She added, however, that "we still have an incredibly long way to go."

Test scores also rose at public charter schools, which serve about 25,000 District children. They registered their biggest gains at the secondary level, increasing math proficiency by nine percentage points and reading by nearly seven points.

"These results underscore the continued success of D.C.'s vibrant public charter school reform," Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a charter advocacy organization, said in a statement. "These superior growth results reveal that the longer students remain in D.C. public charter schools, the better they do academically."

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