NAEP math scores are promising sign for Michelle Rhee's school reform efforts

Thursday, October 15, 2009

NATIONAL TESTS showing that D.C. public school students made significant gains in mathematics are an important reminder of what's at stake in the city's struggle to remake its troubled education system. Student achievement -- not politics nor process, nor even jobs -- is the only issue that truly matters. If the District is to have any hope of doing right by its children, it must sustain the reforms of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that helped produce these heartening results.

D.C. schools still rank as the nation's worst, so no one is declaring mission accomplished. But results released Wednesday of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called national report card, showed remarkable improvement. Public school students -- in regular and charter schools -- increased their scores in both grade levels tested. Fourth-grade students gained an average of five points over two years; eighth-grade students posted an increase of six points. The District led the nation in fourth-grade improvements and was one of just 15 states with increases in eighth-grade scores. For the first time, a majority of fourth-graders tested basic or better in mathematics. "Awesome" is how Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment with the National Center for Education Statistics, described the D.C. gains.

No doubt Ms. Rhee's critics will point out that a generally upward trend preceded her tenure. But they cannot deny the dramatic gains under her leadership while much of the rest of the nation stayed stagnant. Equally impressive is that the increases came as a higher proportion of students with special needs took the tests this year. The NAEP is considered the gold standard of testing: The federal government picks which students will take it and administers the test; it's nearly impossible for teachers to do any test prep. It's significant, then, that the NAEP results mirrored gains reflected in the annual D.C. tests, which some had questioned.

Details on how regular schools fared compared with charters won't be released until next month. And no one can celebrate as long as half of the system's students aren't proficient in basic skills and too many don't finish high school. But we can applaud the city's hardworking teachers and students for these real signs of progress. Those seeking to block the changes being pursued by Ms. Rhee, meanwhile, might want to think again.

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