As the D.C. schools reform effort launched in 2007 by former chancellor Michelle Rhee enters its fifth year, newly released test scores (Rhee’s chosen measure of progress in closing the achievement gap) still show huge gaps between schools in the city’s poorest and wealthiest neighborhoods.

Is anybody surprised?

In this story about the continuing achievement gap, my colleague Bill Turque wrote that children in the poorest schools (in Ward 7 and 8) trailed students in the wealthiest (in Ward 3) in reading and math pass rates from 41 to 56 percentage points on this year’s D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams (which are given annually to students in grades 3 through 8 and 10).

Though were small signs of forward movement, Turque wrote, the test results show that “students in schools east of the Anacostia River — who represent nearly a third of the city’s traditional public school enrollment — have yet to be lifted” by the reforms that started when Rhee became chancellor in 2007 and continued even after she left the job last October and her deputy, Kaya Henderson, took over.

In a key finding, only 28 percent of students in Ward 8 elementary schools, read at proficiency level or better -- down about 2 percentage points from 2010 and almost identical to the pass rate in 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty won control of the public schools. The pass rate this year in Ward 3 elementary schools was 84 percent.

In Ward 7, elementary reading pass rates, which had jumped more than 10 points in 2008 from the year before, declined this year for the third straight year, trailing Ward 3’s by 51 points.

And, Turque pointed out, D.C. schools leaders have not managed how to figure out how to get the teachers their own IMPACT evaluation system deemed highly effective into the most needy schools. “Only 71 of the 663 teachers who received top ratings on this year’s IMPACT evaluation worked in the 41 schools in Wards 7 and 8. By contrast, the 10 schools in Ward 3 have 135 ‘highly effective’ educators,” Turque wrote.

Sadly, this news is not really surprising to critics of Rhee’s reforms, which were centered on the primacy of standardized test scores, which are used to grade students, schools and now teachers.

She chose to make teachers wholly responsible for a student’s academic progress and ignore the outside factors that can affect a child’s school performance. Over and over she accused people who raised the issue of how living in poverty affects a child’s academic progress of being defeatist and using that as an “excuse” for keeping bad teachers in classrooms.

While she was chancellor, Rhee took some actions that indicated that she knew better. She, for example, greatly expanded the number of spaces in preschool, pre-K and Head Start; opened the Early Stages diagnostic center to help flag learning disabilities in children ages 2 to 5; and piloted a program of “wrap-around” support services for at-risk middle school kids.

But her focus was on test scores and how she could use them to assess whether teachers were effective or not (so much so that she left the job of creating a curriculum for D.C. schools to her successor). Henderson has reversed some of Rhee’s personnel decisions but has not changed the overall thrust of the reforms.

The aim of the reform program was to close the achievement gap. Of course real change takes time, but the big gaps in reading at this point reveal a significant failure in the city’s efforts.

The question is when the people who can put the schools on a different course are going to notice that the medicine injected into the ailing system isn’t working and that the reforms are operating on delusions of adequacy.


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