D.C. Student Test Scores Show Gains and Losses

By Nick Anderson and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 15, 2009; B01

Forty D.C. elementary schools logged double-digit gains in pass rates on the citywide spring math exams. But 19 had double-digit losses.

In reading, 26 elementary schools gained at least 10 points in pass rates on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. Nineteen lost at least that much.

Such wide year-to-year, school-to-school fluctuations, found in a Washington Post analysis of 2009 test data the city released Friday, underscore anew that reform is a challenge not only for Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the public charter school movement. It is also a challenge for principals who are seeking to instill a culture of student achievement in many schools where it has long been missing.

In July, the District reported a significant upward trend overall on the tests for elementary schools and, more modestly, for secondary schools in the 45,000-student school system.

Those results gave a snapshot of school performance two years into Rhee's tenure as she seeks to shake up the school system through a variety of measures, including school closures and mergers and the appointment of a cadre of new principals. She is also considering changes in how teachers are hired, evaluated and paid.

Scores also rose this year at public charter schools, which operate under independent management but receive taxpayer funding and serve about 25,000 students.

Exams are given in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school to satisfy the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law.

Friday's data release offered details on the performance of nearly 200 individual schools, crucial to helping principals and teachers learn what worked on a given campus in the past school year and what did not.

"Anytime we have a group of kids who aren't on grade level, people need to take it seriously," said State Superintendent of Education Kerri L. Briggs. "The principals who got more children proficient -- great, they absolutely should celebrate. The principals who stayed the same or fell behind -- they've got more work to do."

Forty-eight schools (35 regular and 13 charter) made adequate yearly progress on test scores and other academic measures required under the federal law, Briggs reported. The rest fell short, with many facing federally mandated interventions to improve instruction.

Rhee was in Nashville for a conference and was unavailable for comment.

Among secondary schools, 15 had double-digit gains in pass rates in math, and 16 had such gains in reading, the Post analysis found. A handful had double-digit declines. Experts cautioned that major drops and gains could be attributed to such factors as school consolidations, changes in the student population and rules for testing special education students.

"Every educator knows that from year to year you can have swings," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, based in the District. "The cohorts are often different. Every teacher knows that one class is not the same one year as the next. But given all the reforms that have gone on in D.C., and the speed of them, and the number of schools that were closed, it's perfectly plausible that you'd have swings in scores that you wouldn't otherwise have."

Some schools are showing steady progress.

At Reed Learning Center, an elementary school in Northwest Washington, pass rates have climbed to 69 percent in reading (up from 48 percent in 2007) and 74 percent in math (up from 30 percent in 2007). Principal Dayo Akinsheye attributed the math gains to the school's use of Japanese lesson study, a collaborative professional development process developed in Japan that teachers use to examine and improve their practice.

At D.C. Preparatory Academy's Edgewood Middle School campus in Northeast, reading and math scores also showed steady growth. Since 2006, reading pass rates at the charter school have risen 23 percentage points, to 65 percent; in math, 70 percent of students are now proficient, up 27 points.

Emily Lawson, the school's founder and chief executive, said the gains have been made as teachers have streamlined curriculum and interventions.

In addition, she said, teachers used a new tool this year: Every eight to 10 weeks, students took tests developed by the Achievement Network, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, to determine which standards they had mastered and which they had not. Teachers used the results to tailor their lessons to students' needs, Lawson said.

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