Report: D.C. schools make most significant reading gains among urban systems

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

A federal study of trends in 11 major urban school systems shows that only one has made significant gains in reading achievement since 2007 in fourth and eighth grades: D.C. Public Schools.

The finding emerges from an analysis of 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress data made public Thursday.

Nationally, the study ranked Atlanta as the top-gaining urban school system of the past decade. Scores there rose steadily and significantly in fourth and eighth grades in the seven-year span after enactment of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002. But in many big cities, reading achievement has grown slowly or stagnated, especially in eighth grade.

The results mean that the goal of closing achievement gaps by 2014, an idealistic standard set when President George W. Bush signed the education law, remains far out of reach. President Obama is seeking a new goal that might be equally hard to attain: for all students to be on track for college and careers by 2020.

For the District, the study offers fresh signs of momentum for a school system long regarded among the nation's worst and bolsters Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's contention that Michelle A. Rhee, the hard-charging but controversial chancellor he hired three years ago, is on the right track. The results also echo gains city schools made in the same span on federal math tests.

Despite the advances, the 44,500-student system continues to trail far behind schools in the suburbs, other big cities and the nation. It faces huge challenges to further improvement related to poverty in many parts of the nation's capital and troubles within its schools.

For Rhee and Fenty (D), the study comes at a critical moment. The chancellor and the Washington Teachers' Union are seeking ratification of a proposed contract that would give teachers big raises and offer privately financed bonuses tied to working in high-need schools and racking up student achievement gains. The mayor is seeking reelection and plans to make school overhaul an issue in his Democratic primary campaign against D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

Federal test results show that fourth-graders in D.C. public schools -- not counting those in the city's public charter schools -- gained about six points on a 500-point scale from 2007 to 2009. Eighth-graders gained about four points.

"It's great for our kids and our teachers in terms of showing progress," Rhee said. "It puts us at the front of the curve." But she noted that D.C. scores (203 in fourth grade, 240 in eighth) still ranked well below averages for the nation (220, 262) and for large cities (210, 252). "We still have a ridiculously long way to go," she said.

Put another way, the D.C. scores also fall short of what the government defines as a basic level of achievement. That is the lowest possible ranking.

The published version of the federal report, available at, shows different figures because officials began separating charter school scores with the 2009 test. By contrast, the published 2007 results combine regular and charter school scores. For other cities, the issue is just a statistical footnote. But that is not true for the District, which has a large and growing charter sector.

Officials with the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test, confirmed that a detailed analysis of results for the D.C. school system shows significant two-year gains for both grades. Scores for D.C. charter schools showed no significant change in fourth grade and a drop in eighth grade.

Rhee credited a recent citywide focus on literacy for the school system's gains. Elementary schools now have two-hour daily "literacy blocks," the chancellor said, and middle schools offer instruction after school and on Saturdays to help students catch up. Schools also have "instructional coaches" to help teachers target lessons.

The study, known as the Trial Urban District Assessment, found that Boston, Houston and New York schools also made significant strides from 2007 to 2009 in fourth-grade reading. The same was true for Atlanta and Los Angeles schools in eighth-grade reading.

Nationally, reading scores were stagnant in fourth grade over two years and edged up slightly in eighth.

The study was released in Atlanta as federal officials acknowledged the city's string of reading gains since 2002. "This is a tremendous accomplishment on the part of our students, teachers and school-based staff and administrators," Atlanta Superintendent Beverly L. Hall said in a statement.

The federal tests are given every two years to a sample of students across the country. They yield results for states, which have previously been published, and for selected school systems. Eighteen urban systems participated in 2009, up from 11 in 2007.

Among the 18 systems, those in Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Jefferson County (Louisville) and Miami posted scores in 2009 that beat the average for large cities in fourth and eighth grades. Scores in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, the District, Fresno (Calif.), Los Angeles and Milwaukee fell short of the large-city average.

In fourth grade, the District outscored Cleveland, Detroit, Fresno, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Philadelphia and was on par with Baltimore and Chicago.

In eighth grade, the District led only Detroit and was at about the level of Fresno and Milwaukee.

Chicago public schools, which were led until 2009 by Arne Duncan, now U.S. education secretary, showed no significant two-year gains in either grade.

Duncan, in a statement, said the results show "cities have significant work to do." He pointed to Atlanta, Los Angeles and Boston as cities that are "leading the way."

David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees testing policy, said, "Despite promising gains in some districts, clearly the ongoing challenge in urban education is great."

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