D.C. schools show big gains in national math tests
Gains on national tests stand out among results for city school systems

By Nick Anderson and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009; A01

D.C. public schools made outsize gains in mathematics during the past six years, according to a federal report card released Tuesday that shows the city school system, long derided as one of the nation's worst, is progressing faster than most of its urban peers.

The advances do not put the city schools anywhere near the same league as high-flying suburban systems such as Montgomery, Fairfax or Arlington counties. But the results suggest that reform efforts under controversial D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and her predecessor have begun to pay off in better student performance.

Once routinely ranked last in math among major urban systems, D.C. public schools are now roughly on par with such cities as Los Angeles, Baltimore and Milwaukee. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that the D.C. system was the only one of 11 studied in 2007 and 2009 to make significant strides in grade 4 and 8 math scores, in an analysis that excluded charter school scores. Its gains in fourth grade since 2003 were triple those found in the nation as a whole and roughly double those for all large cities.

"We grew significantly, whereas other districts remained pretty flat," Rhee said. "That, for us, speaks pretty loudly."

There were caveats. The report covered only math. A crucial follow-up on reading is expected next year. The D.C. system's scores remain well below the national average. On a 500-point scale, the city scored 220 this year in fourth grade, compared with 239 nationally, and 251 in eighth grade, compared with 282 nationally.

For another point of comparison, New York schools had no statistically significant gains this year compared with 2007. But New York's fourth-grade score nearly matched the national average, and its eighth-grade score put the city far closer than the District to closing the gap in academic achievement between big cities and the suburbs.

The District's independently operated charter schools, which teach nearly four in 10 of the city's public students, also made progress over six years. The fourth-grade score rose from 203 in 2003 to 217 in 2009. The eighth-grade score, 256, was up from 250 in 2005 (the first year for which a score was available).

"We think that the longer children stay in these [charter] schools, the better they do," said Barnaby Towns, a spokesman for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

Still, experts said the scores provide evidence that under Rhee, the D.C. system is gaining traction.

"Gains of this magnitude do not happen by accident," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, long a key advocate of the national testing program for urban schools. "They happen because there are real reforms beneath them."

Tuesday's report provided new details about the District's performance compared with other big city systems, building on a state-by-state analysis issued in October.

Rhee took office in June 2007 with a mandate from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to overhaul the schools from the ground up. Her combative style, especially in challenging the teachers union, has made Rhee a national lightning rod. Advocates of data-driven and market-based reforms admire her; many labor leaders loathe her.

Despite the focus on Rhee, the report showed that the upward trend in the District began before she arrived. She credited her predecessor, Clifford B. Janey, with laying a solid foundation in academic standards and curriculum.

In math, educators say, an increased focus on the use of games, calculators and written responses -- to help students demonstrate their reasoning in solving a problem -- helped drive the gains in scores in the national assessment, known as NAEP. The emphasis dates to Janey's tenure but has been redoubled under Rhee.

"I know it sounds simplistic, but it's through the games that kids were able to reinforce factual recall and apply the skills. They were able to look at math as something that was not just paper and pencil drills," said an elementary instructional coach who asked not to be named because she is not authorized to speak publicly.

The emphasis on calculators and written responses is aligned with the substance of the NAEP math test. Calculators are permitted on about a quarter of the fourth-grade test questions. Much of the test covers number properties, operations and measurement, with a bit of geometry, data analysis, statistics, probability and algebra.

D.C. teachers and administrators say the improvement in NAEP scores is attributable in part to the use of Everyday Mathematics, a K-6 curriculum Janey introduced in the District in 2005. Everyday Mathematics focuses on using a student's experiences, encouraging the use of games and hands-on work rooted in real-life situations. Students also are encouraged to explain and discuss their reasoning in their own words.

The NAEP exams, given every two years, are a competition of sorts for urban school reformers.

With D.C. public schools beginning to rise in the rankings, Detroit now sticks out as the school system with by far the lowest marks. Its score of 200 in fourth grade was 39 points below the national average. Casserly called that "an outrage."

On Tuesday, Rhee told a Detroit civic leader: "I feel your pain. We were where you are not too long ago."

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