KIPP DC leaders unworried by drop in test scores

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 7:52 PM

Fifth-grade test scores dropped this year at the KIPP DC charter schools. Some people wondered whether the Knowledge Is Power Program's long record of raising D.C. student achievement was in jeopardy.

The woman who created KIPP DC seems unworried. She has already made a change that may drive some average scores even lower next year.

With eight schools, more space and scores still among the highest in the city, Susan Schaeffler and her teachers appear as devoted to experimentation as they were when I visited the city's first KIPP school in a Southeast Washington church basement in 2001. With space available in a new building on Benning Road SE, Schaeffler added fourth-graders to what had been a fifth- to eighth-grade middle school.

Last year, the reading proficiency rate for KIPP DC fifth-graders dropped from 51 percent to 41 percent, and the math proficiency rate from 72 percent to 51 percent. Schaeffler shrugs this off as random, something that has happened before when fifth-graders arrive at KIPP with lower skill levels than the previous year's class. As a whole, KIPP DC students are still advancing from typical urban achievement levels to much higher suburban levels by the end of eighth grade.

With the new load of fifth-graders, plus the fourth-graders, Schaeffler anticipates an increased number of low-performing students that may again depress average scores. She expects those students to respond eventually to the KIPP formula of well-selected and trained teachers and longer school days and years.

Then the KIPP culture may begin to shift. The network, started by two Houston teachers, now has 99 schools in 20 states and the District. KIPP became the favorite of politicians, editorial writers and low-income parents for its strong rules for behavior, increased time for learning, imaginative teaching and success at preparing students for good high schools and then college.

It also became known for students walking in silent lines from class to class and quick punishment (usually isolation from friends) for those who misbehaved. Internet critics said KIPP expelled many low-performing students to keep test scores up, but that was false. Last year, only 1 percent of KIPP DC middle-schoolers were expelled, in nearly every case for having weapons or drugs on campus. Now, KIPP's no-nonsense reputation may be about to change a bit.

KIPP has been opening elementary schools, 27 nationally, including three in the District. In a few years, most KIPP fourth- and fifth-graders will arrive at or above grade level. The hard work of getting them caught up will be unnecessary. Some of the tougher rules may fade. Most of the fifth-graders at the original KIPP middle school in Houston arrived this year well prepared by their years at KIPP SHINE, the network's first elementary school. KIPP national spokesman Steven Mancini says they are "more relaxed, and a little more cocky" than newly arrived KIPP fifth-graders usually are.

At the other end of the K-12 spectrum, KIPP has been adding high schools, including KIPP DC: College Preparatory, in its second year in Southeast Washington. Schaeffler and Principal Cheryl Borden say they have much work to do. Last year, Schaeffler says, they did not hire enough teachers to address the gap between students who came from KIPP middle schools and newcomers.

Like the fifth-graders in Houston, the KIPP DC high-schoolers get more freedom. "Seeing kids walking the halls talking to each other, that took me a while to get used to," Schaeffler says. Those who earn 3.2 grade-point averages or higher can even leave school an hour early.

But the students are so used to nine hours of school a day that it feels too weird to cut out at 3:30 p.m. They prefer to stay after school with their friends and make sure they, and KIPP, don't lose their edge.

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