Figuring out the score in D.C.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

DISTRICT SCHOOLS Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee knows better than anyone the value of data, so she's not discounting this year's disappointing dip in elementary math and reading scores. "We have to own this and figure out how to move forward," she said in a forthright admission of the need to redouble efforts. But, by the same token, Ms. Rhee is right to note -- and celebrate -- the undeniable improvement of the public schools in the past three years. Despite the latest results, the larger trend in achievement is upward.

Preliminary results of the 2010 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests were mixed. Secondary school students showed significant growth in both reading and math while elementary school students lost ground in both subjects. The number of elementary school students rated proficient was down 4.4 percent in reading and 4.6 percent in math, while the number of secondary students reaching proficiency was up 3.2 percent in reading and 4.1 percent in math. And the actual gains in test scores by middle and secondary school students -- the third year of growth -- are particularly important since these schools present some of the system's most persistent challenges. Nonetheless, they were overshadowed by the drop in elementary scores.

It's important, as Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools stressed, not to overreact to the dip in this year's scores, because it is a typical experience for urban school systems working toward long-term improvement. Indeed, the council's analysis of reading and math scores in big-city schools showed most school systems having periods where scores declined before rising to sustained higher levels of achievement. In other words, Mr. Casserly said, improvement doesn't happen in a straight line.

Of course, that doesn't mean the District can be complacent. The first step is to figure out what caused the decline. Could it be something as simple as the switch this year to a different test? Or are there more fundamental issues with students' skills? Ms. Rhee, to her credit, didn't offer any excuses. She said her staff would study the data, and she is commissioning outside groups to assist the city's analysis. More information will be made available next month, and it will be interesting to see whether any of the city's charter schools, which overall had stable scores this year, had results comparable to those of the traditional schools.

Inevitably, this year's test scores are bound to be employed in the politics surrounding Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's bid for reelection. Certainly, he and Ms. Rhee should be held to account. But so should they be given credit for the fact that D.C. students are performing better than three years ago.

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