Test scores suggest the new D.C. school model is working

Friday, May 21, 2010; A18

IN THE BAD OLD days not so long ago, any release of student test scores guaranteed an unhappy moment for Washington, D.C. No longer. This week Washington was recognized as the only major city school district in the country where fourth- and eighth-graders made significant gains on a national reading exam. The results mirror gains that D.C. students have made on math tests, and they offer another indicator of the impact of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and her team.

Analysis of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the national report card, showed significant progress during the past two years in student reading skills. Fourth-graders -- and this does not include those in public charter schools -- gained about six points on a 500-point scale, and eighth-graders gained four points. Of the 11 urban school systems that administered the exam, only the District registered significant improvement at both grade levels. The eighth-grade growth outpaced the average growth in the nation, while fourth-grade growth trailed only that in Houston.

D.C. schools still score well below the national average. "We still have a ridiculously long way to go," Ms. Rhee said. But the changes she is bringing to the troubled system are beginning to make a difference.

Some who questioned Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's takeover of the schools or his selection and steadfast support of Ms. Rhee are beginning to reconsider. Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, had reservations about mayoral control, but -- as he writes on the opposite page today -- his careful study of the past three years convinces him that the gains achieved under mayoral control are not accidental. Ms. Rhee has been controversial, in some cases gratuitously and in some cases inevitably, given her commitment to change. But, as Mr. Casserly writes, she has made a positive difference for children, which is in the end what matters.

Given the mounting evidence of positive movement, we continue to wonder why everyone in this city would not seek to ensure that Ms. Rhee stays in office. But we worry that progress could fall victim to the battle for mayor between Mr. Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. If reelected, Mr. Fenty would retain the chancellor; indeed, school reform is the centerpiece of his reelection bid. Mr. Gray's intentions are less clear; he says that he is open to the chancellor staying, but he also has criticized her leadership.

On Thursday, Mr. Gray again reacted with ambivalence, welcoming the improvement in test scores while noting that "real school reform is about more than test scores and cannot be the only barometer of achievement." That's certainly true, but what other barometers is he examining, and what is he seeing there? If Mr. Gray doesn't think the city is making sufficient progress, we hope he will say so and explain what he would do differently.

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