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Progress stalls in closing gaps in D.C. schools

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; A1

After two years of progress, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's effort to narrow the vast achievement gap separating white and African American students in D.C. public schools has stalled, an analysis of 2010 test score data shows.

The slowed pace of improvement comes as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty makes transformation of the city's long-struggling school system a signature issue in his tightly contested Democratic primary race with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

It is also a setback for Rhee, who established closure of the gap as an imperative when she accepted Fenty's appointment as chancellor in 2007. She called the disparity "unacceptable" and pledged to eliminate it as a matter of educational and social justice.

Data that Rhee released this week show that the difference in the percentages of white and black students who score at proficiency levels on the annual D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests had narrowed from 2007 to this year. The most significant improvement was in secondary schools, where the spread in math achievement dropped more than more 18 percentage points, from 70 to 51.4 percent.

But year-to-year results show that progress has slowed markedly. After narrowing from 2007 to last year, the gap in secondary math proficiency widened by slightly less than 2 percentage points. Secondary reading scores show the same flattening trajectory.

The District's struggle to close academic divides based on race and ethnicity is playing out in school systems across the country, where progress has also stagnated. And experts caution against making sweeping judgments about the District's prospects for continued improvement based on a year's worth of data.

In a statement Thursday, Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said the school system used the three-year time frame because that is how long the Fenty administration's reform effort has been underway. She also cautioned against forming broad judgments on the basis of a single year's data.

"Change does not happen overnight," Calloway said. "Any one single data point - or change in a single data point over one year - is not sufficient to make overall conclusions about progress on this goal. To only consider one year would not accurately portray what has happened during this administration."

The gap in secondary reading proficiency closed by 15 points, from 67.2 to 52.2 percent, between 2007 and this year. But nearly all of that improvement occurred between 2007 and last year. This past school year, the gap closed by less than a percentage point.

Proficiency gaps in the elementary grades narrowed more modestly across the three-year span. The black-white gap in elementary math achievement closed by 2.5 percentage points between 2007 and this year. But from 2009 to this year, it grew by 4.3 percentage points. In elementary schools, the three-year stretch shows the divide in reading closing by 1.7 points. But that includes a widening of 3.5 points in 2009-10. That means this year's elementary reading gap is almost exactly where it was in 2007.

The same widening trend is visible in some of the gaps separating white and Hispanic students and Hispanics and blacks. The spread in reading proficiency between white and Hispanic secondary students grew this year by more than 9 percentage points after shrinking between 2007 and last year. The same is true for the divide in reading proficiency between black and Hispanic elementary students.

The District is far from alone in its struggle to mount a sustained assault on the gaps. Montgomery County has had some success in the past decade, but gains on statewide tests since 2008 have been modest, narrowing the gap between white and black students only a percentage point or two a year.

After major progress in the 1970s and '80s, the rate of narrowing has slowed nationwide, according to a recent report by the Policy Information Center of the Educational Testing Service. By fourth grade, African American and Latino students are still, on average, nearly three academic years behind their white peers, according to the Educational Equality Project, a national advocacy group founded in 2008 to help close the gap.

The latest D.C. achievement data add to a body of mixed results for the District this year. Elementary students across all racial and ethnic groups lost ground in reading and math test scores on this year's DC CAS, after proficiency rates rose about 19 percentage points in math and 11 in reading between 2007 and 2009. Secondary scores continued to grow overall this year, adding to a three-year run of double-digit growth.

Growth in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered by the federal government, surpassed that of students in other big cities. But the math achievement gap for black and white fourth-graders widened.

Experts said it's difficult to know why progress in closing the gaps slowed this year. Some say it could be a signal that students on the cusp of proficiency have been helped over the threshold with extra attention. Those remaining have far more academic ground to cover.

Michael Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, said some anomaly in the tests, possibly triggered by changes in the questions, could be a factor. But he agreed with Rhee that one flat year is not decisive.

"If there was another year of this, I would be concerned," he said.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, said that although good schools and good teachers can make a difference in the lives of poor children, the persistence of the achievement gaps may also suggest that there is a limit to their reach.

"Part of this hitting the wall may be the troubling fact that we may need to somehow attack family poverty before we see greater progress in closing achievement," Fuller said.

Staff writer Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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