The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What does rise in D.C. test scores really mean? Not much.

Public schools in D.C. just saw larger gains on 2013 math and reading tests on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — which is sometimes called “the nation’s report card” — than any other major urban school system in the country. Impressive, right? Well, maybe not so much.

One of the central educational goals of score reformers for more than a decade now has been to boost standardized test scores, this based on the assumption that such jumps indicate kids are learning more. There are a lot of caveats to that assumption.

For one thing, a new study by neuroscientists at MIT, and Harvard and Brown universities shows that students who achieved the highest gains on standardized tests did not show the same gains in the ability to analyze material and think logically. In fact, in many cases no cognitive gains were realized at all, no matter how high the test scores went up. The likely takeaway: Teachers have gotten very good at teaching students strategies to do better on tests.

There are other important points that my colleague Emma Brown points out in this story that make it hard to really know why the rise in D.C. test scores occurred. The test score gains were impressive on the face of it:  five points in fourth-grade reading, eight points in eighth-grade reading, seven points in fourth-grade math and five points in eighth-grade math.

(The Washington Post/Source: National Center for Education Studies) – D.C. Public School fourth-graders improved in both math and reading since 2011, but average scores lag behind other large urban school systems.