By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; A01
After two years of significant gains across the D.C. school system, elementary students lost ground in reading and math test scores this year, a setback to Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee as she seeks to overhaul the city's schools.
The data released Tuesday did reflect encouraging news for middle and high schools, which extended gains in reading and math proficiency on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System. Officials said the three-year record of double-digit growth in secondary schools' test scores -- an average gain of 14 percentage points in the reading pass rate and 17 points in the math rate -- surpasses the norm for big urban school districts.
But the dip of between four to five points in elementary scores halts an upward two-year trend. From 2007 to 2009, elementary pass rates had risen about 19 points in math and 11 points in reading.
The decline comes at an inopportune moment for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who is in a hotly contested Democratic primary battle with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. Fenty hopes to demonstrate to voters that the city's school system, among the nation's weakest, is undergoing a historic turnaround. As Fenty fends off charges of cronyism and indifference to constituent concerns, school improvement has emerged as an increasingly critical part of his political portfolio.
The elementary-school decline also represents a blow for Rhee, who has made test score growth an integral part of the cultural change in schools she has pursued since becoming chancellor in 2007. Handpicked principals have established academic "war rooms" to chart the progress of each student, tailoring instruction to address weaknesses that emerge on interim tests. Through winter and spring, schools are fully mobilized to prepare for the April tests in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 10. Field trips are canceled, and classes spend more time on test preparation. Selected schools offer "Saturday academies" to help students. And this year's scores for the first time will determine half of the annual evaluation of some D.C. teachers. Last week, Rhee confirmed that she intended to expand standardized testing to cover all grades.
Fenty and Rhee remained upbeat about the school system, pointing to an innovative new teachers contract, freshly renovated schools and a three-year record of achievement gains.
"Our secondary schools are doing fantastic, as are our elementary schools," Fenty said in a morning news conference with Rhee at Ballou High School in Southeast Washington.
Rhee said that reversals were inevitable when attempting to turn around a low-achieving school system and that she was undaunted.
"We like to celebrate when we do well, and when we don't, we have to take responsibility," she said in an interview later in the day. "We have to own this and figure out how to move forward."
New test data for D.C. public charter schools, which educate about 38 percent of the 73,000 children in public schools, show reading and math scores remaining essentially flat. Although pass rates for charter and regular public schools are nearly identical at the elementary level, charter schools continue to hold a significant edge at the secondary level, mostly on the strength of high-achieving middle schools such as the three campuses operated by the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).
From 2007 to 2010, however, test scores at regular public secondary schools have risen at a faster clip. Pass rates for regular secondary schools rose 14 points in reading and 17 in math; the gains for secondary charter schools were 8 points in reading and 14 in math.
Fenty and Rhee accentuated the positive Tuesday, presenting charts that showed overall three-year gains while playing down the changes from 2009 to 2010. Officials also withheld some data normally disclosed with the citywide scores, including the number of schools that made "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Last year, just 34 of the District's 123 public schools met the progress threshold.
Federal officials raised the progress targets significantly in 2010. Schools seeking to make "AYP" must show more than 70 percent proficiency in reading and math.
District officials said that information was not available Tuesday. Chad Colby, spokesman for the office of D.C. State Superintendent of Education Kerri L. Briggs -- a Fenty appointee who handles the release of test data -- said the agency was "following best practices" by allowing individual schools to review and verify test data before final results are published. Colby said all data will be released by Aug. 9.
Rhee offered no immediate explanation for the drop in elementary scores, but she said school officials would "dig into the data" to determine the reasons. A preliminary analysis showed that the bulk of the decline was in the third and sixth grades. Some potential causes could be changes in personnel, shifts in student population or modifications to the test.
Experts said it is impossible to draw sweeping conclusions from the elementary test data.
"It's a mixed bag," said Andrew Rotherham, a former Clinton administration education adviser and co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization that supports school reform. "Just as people shouldn't have been celebrating last year, they shouldn't be overly disappointed this year. You're always going to have ebbs and flows."
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which supports urban school districts, said school systems that make long-term gains often have a year of decline before moving to higher levels.
"I frankly don't read too much into it," said Casserly, who compared the D.C. test score trends to the bull and bear cycles of the stock market.
At Rhee's request, Casserly said he analyzed test data from his organization's 65 member school systems and found that the District had gains at the secondary level "of a magnitude substantially above what you see in other big city districts."
Casserly added that the finding had to be treated "with a little bit of caution" because of the differences in standardized tests from state to state.