(Michael Quirk/iStock)

The percentage of public school students passing a critical standardized exam in the District is gradually growing, according to results released Monday showing that students across all demographic groups improved on the English portion of the test. Progress in math proved more modest.

The results for the 2018-2019 academic year also underscore the considerable challenges administrators and teachers confront in their efforts to bridge the city’s achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Although black and Hispanic students’ results improved at a moderately faster rate than those of their white peers citywide, that improvement did not significantly bridge the achievement chasm.


(Office of the State Superintendent of Education)

In announcing the results, city leaders celebrated the progress while acknowledging that further improvements are needed, particularly in the way the District approaches math. They stressed that achievement gaps are not closed overnight and that the goal is steady growth each year.

“For the fourth year, we are seeing continued, steady improvements, which means more students are performing at higher levels,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at a news conference at Whittier Education Campus, which registered double-digit gains in the English and math portions of the exam.

“The achievement gap is still too wide,” Bowser said. “We can build a fairer and more equitable city when we know that our African American and Latino students are achieving at the same levels as their white peers.”

The computerized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test — widely known as PARCC and administered in the spring — is a rigorous exam that evaluates students on a five-point scale, with those who earn fours and fives meeting or exceeding expectations and considered “college and career ready.”

The exam, first administered in 2015, has multiple-choice and open-ended questions. It is given to students each year in Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, as required by federal law.

With the exception of students taking the sixth-grade math test, every grade level citywide made gains on both portions of the exam.


(Office of the State Superintendent of Education)

Overall, 37.1 percent of District students passed the English portion of the exam, a jump from 33.3 percent in 2018. In math, 30.5 percent of District students passed, a slight increase from 29.4 percent the previous year.

Results show that 85 percent of white students, 37.3 percent of Hispanic students and 27.8 percent of black students passed the English portion of the exam. On math, 78.8 percent of white students, 30.5 percent of Hispanic students and 21.1 percent of black students passed.

On the math and English exams, Hispanic students made the biggest gains of any group, with passing rates increasing 5.3 percentage points in English and 2.3 percentage points in math.

Citywide passing rates for at-risk students — which means they are homeless or in foster care, their families qualify for public assistance, or they have been held back more than a year in high school — increased 2.7 percentage points in English and remained about the same in math.

City education leaders said the results help determine where more resources should be invested.

“We are seeing progress,” D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang said. “This data is particularly valuable because we know that this assessment is truly a high-quality one that measures real-world skills like problem solving and critical thinking.”

Students at almost every neighborhood high school in the traditional public system improved on the English portion of the exam. The passing rate on the English exam at Anacostia High, where more than 80 percent of students are considered at-risk, jumped 8 percentage points, to 12.5 percent.

At Coolidge and Dunbar high schools, two campuses with high populations of at-risk students and those with special-education needs, passing rates more than doubled in English, with 10 percent passing at Coolidge and 15.8 percent at Dunbar.

But gains on math scores were mainly in the application high schools. McKinley Technology High School had an 8 percentage point increase. Banneker and School Without Walls high schools registered double-digit increases. Some of the neighborhood high schools that made impressive gains in English experienced little movement — or even declines — in math.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis. D. Ferebee said that after seeing the math scores, he plans to rethink math teaching strategies and will increase access to interventions for struggling students.

Ferebee said that fewer students scored a 1 or 2 on the exam — the lowest scores on the test — an encouraging development not captured in passing rates.

In all, the traditional public system had 38 of its 115 schools report gains of 2 percentage points or more in English and math.

“We want to see the types of progress that we saw in English in math,” Ferebee said. “We are really proud of the math progress this year, but we know we still have work to do.”


Sample questions from the exam. (Office of the State Superintendent of Education)

Overall, the traditional public school system made somewhat bigger gains than the charter sector, although both performed better in English than in math.

In the charter sector, test scores varied substantially among schools. Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, stressed that many of the schools with the biggest gains are in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Congress Heights and DC Prep on Benning Road Northeast, for example, posted significant improvements in both subjects.

The city’s two biggest charter networks — KIPP and Friendship Public Charter School — had some schools that made big improvements and others that registered large drops. The math passing rate at Friendship’s Blow Pierce Elementary School dropped nearly 22 percentage points, while Friendship’s Southeast elementary school increased 27.6 percentage points.

Seven of KIPP’s 11 schools saw gains in English, while four experienced decreases. Three KIPP schools experienced gains in math.

KIPP DC College Preparatory, a high school, was considered one of the city’s most- improved charter high schools based on its test results.

Pearson said the results indicate KIPP and Friendship still have work to do to ensure that consistent strategies and teaching approaches are evident on all of their campuses despite previous efforts to do just that.

Pearson also noted that English-language learners are performing better in the traditional public school system — a trend that has endured in recent years. He says he has encouraged charter leaders to learn from the traditional public system’s strategies in working with English-language learners.

“Every year, we make steps in closing the gap,” Pearson said. “I wouldn’t characterize this year’s results as significant steps, but this is the work of a generation — it’s not the result of a year. And when we look at the last 10 years, absolutely we have taken significant steps.”