Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that the average score of African American eighth-graders on the mathematics segment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress dropped a statistically insignificant one point, from 245 to 244, from 2007 to 2009. Their average score rose from 240 in 2007 to 244 in 2009, an increase that is statistically significant.

Behind D.C. schools' math gains, racial gap persists

Sharonda Irving assesses a student's skills at Tyler Elementary School in Southeast Washington.
Sharonda Irving assesses a student's skills at Tyler Elementary School in Southeast Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Last week's federal report card on math achievement was a welcome piece of good news for D.C. public schools. Although the District still lags far behind the country's top-performing systems, the report card showed fourth- and eighth-graders making strides at a faster pace over the past two years than cities including Atlanta, Chicago and New York.

But what remains embedded in the latest numbers from the National Assessment of Educational Progress is the persistent achievement gap between African American and white students both locally and nationally. The average scores of white D.C. fourth-graders over the past two years grew from 262 to 270 (on a scale of 500), but their African American peers' rose just three points, from 209 to 212. The achievement gap actually grew between 2007 and 2009, from 53 to 58 points.

African American progress in the eighth grade remained essentially flat, dipping a statistically insignificant one point, from 245 to 244. Average white scores were not included in the test results because the sample size wasn't large enough.

The picture across a six-year stretch isn't more encouraging. The gap separating white and black fourth-graders in 2003, when the first NAEP in the District was given, was 60 scale points (262 to 202). Although the scores achieved by children in both groups have increased during this period, the difference has barely narrowed to 58.

Some education advocates in the District expressed concern last week that the gains celebrated by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) were propelled largely by white students who are already high achievers.

"It would suggest that we've raised the aggregate by treating those at the higher end of the scale, which is problematic and troublesome," said Jeff Smith, executive director of D.C. Voice, a nonprofit group that advocates for educational equality in the District.

"I'm not jumping up and down about a two- or three-point spread," said D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who has a daughter in the fourth grade at Eaton Elementary. A frequent critic of Rhee's management style, Brown said the message of the test scores is that the city's middle schools are in desperate need of attention.

"Clearly, you always want to see the plus signs, and I respect that. But what's scary is we're not spending nearly the time and energy we need to spend on our middle schools."

Rhee said the District needs to continue to find better ways to address the needs of low-achieving students. This fall, for example, some teachers are being trained to use a new reading curriculum, the Wilson Reading System, targeted to students in the upper elementary and middle school grades who didn't master the basics of reading early in their school careers and are significantly behind their peers. "Everyday Mathematics," a K-through-sixth-grade math curriculum emphasizing games and real-life experiences that was brought to the District under former superintendent Clifford Janey, is credited with some of the NAEP progress reported last week.

"I just think we have to keep working at bringing the best interventions to those students who are below grade level," Rhee said.

Others say that the NAEP's results highlight the question of whether Rhee can continue to lift the overall performance of the system and still provide the additional money and resources for low-performing schools that will be necessary to narrow the gap.

"There is a sort of rough-edged dilemma here for Michelle Rhee," said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies urban test scores. "The conventional policy remedy is to target your resources and management reforms on schools located in the poorest sections of D.C. But the rub, of course, is like other urban superintendents, she's trying to hold on to the white and black middle class. So the targeting may yield political repercussions that go against that important agenda."

Rhee said she rejects Fuller's zero-sum premise. "Our focus is on ensuring that we build a system of great schools. We need to strengthen our neighborhood schools so that all families, regardless of where they live, are confident that their children can get an excellent public education."

Janey, now superintendent of schools in Newark, said in an interview this week that one essential element to closing the achievement gap is to lengthen the traditional public school year, currently 180 days in the District, to compete with charter schools.

"You have to get up near 200 days to have the force of change," said Janey, who came to agreement with his teachers' union last year on a 185-day year, which he regards as "a marker" for seeking a bigger increase in the next contract.

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