The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. is a bright spot in the nation’s overall lackluster standardized test results

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser , left, and State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang in 2018. Kang called the District’s gains on NAEP “remarkable.” (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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D.C. students made some of the country’s biggest gains in reading and math this year on a standardized test regarded as a crucial barometer of achievement, according to results released Wednesday.

The District’s performance on the federally administered tests has historically lagged behind the rest of the country. The results bring the District closer to the average state performance and, on some metrics, above average for urban districts.

The city’s results were a bright spot in otherwise lackluster results for the country overall on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP.

Nationally, scores for reading in fourth and eighth grades dropped from 2017 to 2019. Declines were recorded among students with the highest scores and among those with the lowest scores. In math, there was a small improvement among fourth-graders but a small drop in grade eight, driven by declines among lower-performing students.

The national results, reported on a 500-point scale, were based on testing of about 300,000 fourth-graders and 290,600 eighth-graders. The changes since 2017 were sometimes a shift of a single point, a small but statistically significant change. Fourth-graders scored an average of 240 points on their math test, and eighth-graders earned an average of 281 points on the exam. In reading, fourth-graders earned an average of 219 points and eighth-graders scored 262 points.

NAEP, often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” is a closely watched exam because it assesses the performance of children from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in urban, suburban and rural communities. The government first administered a version of the exam in 1990, and it tests fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading every other year.

This year, the District and Mississippi were the only jurisdictions to improve on three of the four metrics evaluated. And when compared with the 50 states, the District made the largest gains in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math over the three decades since the test was first administered.

“D.C. continues to make remarkable gains. The level of progress is really unprecedented, both in magnitude and for how long it has been sustained,” said Hanseul Kang, the D.C. state superintendent of education. “We were so far behind that we weren’t even in the game. And now, we are in the game and on the rise.”

Maryland saw a decline in results for fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math. The score in fourth-grade reading dropped five points to an average score of 220 and decreased three points in eighth grade to 264. One possible explanation is an increased number of English-language learners over the past decade.

In Virginia, math results remained steady, while reading scores declined since 2017. The results mirror declines on Virginia’s statewide standardized reading tests.Virginia performed average or above average when compared to other states on every metric.

“Virginia’s schools are enrolling increasing numbers of students whose learning is impacted by poverty and trauma,” James Lane, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement. “Any strategy to raise achievement in reading must address this challenge.”

Lane said state and local officials in Virginia are working on ways to improve reading instruction. This month, he issued a memo to superintendents emphasizing the importance of daily reading and included resources for instruction.

Nationally, jurisdictions saw the biggest decline in 2019 on eighth-grade reading scores, with a three-point drop out of the 500 possible points. While some changes were small, this one was a “very meaningful decline,” said Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner for the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics.

“It is critical that researchers further explore the declines we are seeing here,” she said.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, attributes the national stagnation to the lingering effects of the recession a decade ago. He said the struggles of low-income families were especially pronounced through these years, affecting their children’s long-term educational success. In addition, states cut funding for schools, hurting progress.

“I think we are still seeing the effect of that, even as states are starting to open their wallets again,” he said. “The good news is that today’s booming economy, and increases in school spending, should help to improve results going forward. But maybe not until 2022 or 2023.”

The District was the only jurisdiction that experienced a significant increase in eighth-grade reading. The score increased to 250 points, still well below the national state average on the exam.

“There is clearly something good happening in D.C. when it comes to eighth-grade scores,” said Matthew Chingos, vice president of education data and policy at the Urban Institute .

The increase was driven largely by the performance of Hispanic students, who scored an average of 250 points on the exam, an eight-point increase since 2017. Black eighth-grade students had a one-point increase to 241 on the reading exam, and white students registered a one-point decline to 299.

Even so, a significant achievement gap persists between white students in the District and their Hispanic and black peers, although the gaps narrowed on this year’s test.

Overall, black, Hispanic and white students made gains on the test, and Kang said the city’s overall growth on the test cannot be attributed to demographic shifts in the city.

The boost in the District’s scores was largely driven by improvements among students attending traditional public schools. Results from the charter sector — which are publicly funded and privately operated campuses that educate nearly half of the District’s public school children — remained largely stagnant since 2017.

“D.C. continues to be the fastest improving state in the nation,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at a news conference Wednesday announcing the results. And D.C. Public Schools “is the fastest improving urban school district in the nation.”

Kang attributed the District’s gains to investments in high-quality teachers and early-childhood education. The city has offered universal prekindergarten since 2008, and she said the city is increasing access to quality child care for infants.

The traditional public school system is one of 27 urban school districts to participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment, which allows comparisons across districts.

Donna St. George and Debbie Truong contributed to this report.

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