The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. school system’s gaping achievement gaps — in seven graphs

In his 2014 State of the District speech, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray talked Tuesday night about the “significant progress” that the D.C. Public Schools systems have made in recent years — progress that is measured by (of course) standardized test scores.

For seven years D.C. schools have been undergoing standardized test-based reforms, first under former chancellor Michelle Rhee and then her Gray-appointed successor, Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and Gray made them a highlight of his speech. He said in part:

 Just a few months ago, we learned that District students improved faster than students in any other state in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, commonly known as NAEP. And our students also showed the most improvement in the country on the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA. The TUDA is a test that compares urban school districts across the nation, so it is a true apples-to-apples comparison. And, over the past few years, we have shown major progress — catapulting us over many other big cities in national rankings. Whereas just a few years ago we were below cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia, we’ve now leapt ahead of them and are poised to keep rising.

Well, if the mayor — who is seeking a second term and is a candidate in next month’s Democratic primary — wants to talk NAEP scores, then let’s look at what the NAEP scores really tell us. What we find is that achievement gaps between blacks and whites as well as between children from low-income families and children from middle- and higher-income families are huge and that all of the reforms have not stopped these gaps from actually widening.

While I don’t think standardized test scores are a good metric of progress, Gray (who on Monday was implicated by prosecutors in an illegal fund-raising scandal for his 2010 mayoral campaign) apparently does. So he has to live by them.

Here are seven charts that were created by budget analyst Mary Levy and cited by D.C. Democratic mayoral candidate Andy Shallal in a white paper on why seven years of school reform has failed to help close the achievement gap in the city and has in fact widened it. Shallal has correctly noted that the rise in the NAEP scores in 2013 “reflect,  in part, the changing demographics of D.C. schools, toward a population of wealthier and whiter students” and they “reveal an economic achievement gap seriously widening.”