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Reading scores stalled under 'No Child' law, report finds D.C. fourth-graders a bright spot in disappointing 2009 data

But the overall D.C. reading scores show an increase in fourth grade, to 202 last year from 197 in 2007. Nationally, the public average remained 220 on the 500-point scale. Virginia's score was unchanged at 227. Maryland's was 226 in 2009, compared with 225 in 2007, but the change was not statistically significant. Since 2002, though, Maryland has made major strides.

D.C. test scores have been trending upward, but achievement in the city's schools remains far below the high marks of the surrounding suburbs.

Rhee was appointed chancellor in 2007 by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to shake up a school system long regarded among the nation's worst. But some of the city's academic advances began under her predecessor, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.

Rhee attributed some of the District's recent gains to aggressive screening to identify struggling readers, professional development for teachers and the creation of a two-hour "literacy block" in all elementary schools. That amounts to two hours every school day of uninterrupted focus on reading. In some cases, art, music and physical education teachers with free time go into classrooms to work with small groups of children. Rhee said the District's focus on written responses in preparation for the city's standardized tests helped develop higher-order comprehension skills.

"We're very heartened by this," Rhee said. "It's hard to discount the fact that D.C. has never seen gains like this before relative to other jurisdictions."

Rhee has expressed hope that academic improvement will translate to increased enrollment for the school system, ending a long period of free-fall in the student population. On Wednesday, officials announced that there are 44,467 students this year in the school system, a marginal decline of 214 from the previous year. There are 27,617 students in the fast-growing charter schools, up about 8 percent.

The federal report showed that fourth- and eighth-grade scores nationally were well short of levels the government deems proficient. The national averages remain mired in the basic range, meaning that students showed only partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental to reaching proficiency in each grade.

The tests were given early last year to 178,800 fourth-graders and 160,900 eighth-graders. The 2009 version included poetry in the fourth grade for the first time, among other adjustments, but officials said the scores were comparable.

Kentucky officials said they were thrilled with their results, which show a four-point gain in fourth grade over two years and a five-point gain in eighth grade. No other state could show definitive gains in both grades. But Kentucky appears to have no especially unusual program for reading.

"It's our teachers," said state Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross. "They are so determined to make sure that every kid has the kind of reading skills kids need at a particular grade level. They have put a laser-like focus on reading."


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