Better D.C. test scores vindicate Michelle Rhee's reforms

Saturday, March 27, 2010

FURTHER EVIDENCE that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is doing the right things came this week in new test data showing D.C. fourth-graders leading the nation in reading gains. The schools are still troubled, and there is still much to be done. But here is more reason to believe that the three-year effort to reform Washington's public education is paying off.

The District was one of the few bright spots in Wednesday's report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Most states showed no improvement in student performance on fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests administered in 2009. D.C. students, however, posted an impressive five-point gain since 2007 in fourth-grade reading, while eighth-grade scores were essentially stable. There are, of course, caveats: the scores are but one snapshot; they include both traditional public schools and charter schools and -- what's most significant -- D.C. students still lag far behind. The city's reading scores are well below the national average, with 56 percent of fourth-graders and 49 percent of eight-graders lacking basic reading skills.

Still, there's no denying that progress is being made. The reading scores are part of a pattern that includes similar gains on the NAEP math tests and growth in all grade levels on local reading and math tests. Virtually every subgroup of student -- African American, English-language learner, white, low-income, special-needs, Hispanic -- has increased proficiency. Yes, as some have noted, the math NAEP scores showed the persistence of an achievement gap, but that's not because Hispanic and African American students faltered but because white students also upped their game.

There's no question, as critics of Ms. Rhee are wont to point out, that some of the foundation for today's successes lies with work done by former superintendent Clifford B. Janey. But does anyone really think there's no correlation between these unprecedented gains and the reforms undertaken by Ms. Rhee? The NAEP is the gold standard of student assessments, and its officials have held out the District as an example of a place where things are going right. Credit also goes to the system's hardworking teachers as well as to the students themselves.

As Ms. Rhee told the D.C. Council during an oversight hearing this week, the reason to give control of the schools to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was to press for institutional change. "Tweaking the bureaucracy" wasn't going to do the job. In upending that status quo, Ms. Rhee has ruffled feathers and made enemies. One only had to listen to questioning from council members such as Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) or Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) during the hearing to know that she's made people unhappy. Even city residents who see the schools headed in the right direction give low approval ratings to Ms. Rhee. Undoubtedly, there are things she might have done differently, but in the area that matters most, Ms. Rhee is producing results.

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