D.C. Students Make Significant Strides on National Math Test

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

D.C. public school students made significant strides in mathematics in the past two years even as students nationwide showed more modest gains or none at all, the federal government reported Wednesday.

The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tested fourth- and eighth-graders, showed some gains in Maryland and stagnant scores in Virginia. The results offered plenty of reason for concern for reformers seeking to push achievement to new heights nationwide and close the gaps between white and minority students.

But for the District's troubled schools and its ambitious but controversial chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, the report is a hopeful sign amid budget cuts, layoffs and the most intense political strife since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty gave Rhee unprecedented powers more than two years ago. Only four states and the District made notable gains in both grades.

Scores for D.C. students in charters and regular public schools rose five points on a 500-point scale in fourth grade and six points in eighth. Their marks remained far below the national average but were noteworthy for the amount of improvement. The national gain in eighth grade was just two points; in fourth grade, nil.

"This is progress in the face of challenge," said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment with the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education Department. She called the D.C. gains "awesome."

The sluggish national results buttress the contention of many politicians and educators that the United States must improve in math to compete in the global economy. They suggest that advances made under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which stressed annual state testing and school accountability, might be petering out. And they help provide a rationale for a new round of reform under President Obama.

"Seeing stuff flat-line is not what we want as a country -- seeing achievement gaps that are unacceptably large," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "The status quo isn't good enough. We have to get dramatically better."

Maryland public schools also improved in fourth-grade math, federal data showed, but made no significant gains in eighth grade.

The federally funded tests, part of a series known as the nation's report card, are given periodically in various subjects. (The national tests are separate from the annual D.C. student achievement tests that have drawn scrutiny in recent months for high erasure rates found in some schools.) This year, about 330,000 students were tested in five areas of math: number properties and operations; measurement; geometry; data analysis, statistics and probability; and algebra.

Fourth-graders were expected to solve a problem such as 301 minus 75. (Sixty-seven percent found the correct answer of 226.) They were also asked to plot a set of three given points and fill in three others on a two-axis grid to create a rectangle. (Twenty-seven percent answered fully and correctly.)

Eighth-graders were asked to analyze the probability of picking a green pencil, sight unseen, from a stack of six red, four green and five blue pencils. (Seventy-seven percent answered correctly that the probability was four out of 15.) They were also asked to find an algebraic expression for the length of a rectangle, given that the length is 3 feet less than twice the width (w in feet). Fifty-one percent got that right: 2w minus 3.

The average fourth-grade score for national public and private students was 240 on a 500-point scale. Viewed another way, 39 percent of students tested nationally got at least a 249 and were rated proficient or better. Both results were unchanged from the last round of testing in 2007. Black and Hispanic students, who historically trail white students academically, did not narrow disparities even though a core goal of the 2002 federal law was to close such achievement gaps. The black-white score gap in fourth-grade math remained 26 points, the Hispanic-white gap 21 points.

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