NAEP is considered the national report card and the gold standard of testing. It measures the achievement of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math every two years. The District was one of only two jurisdictions — Mississippi being the other — to show significant gains between 2017 and 2019 in three of the four grade/subject assessments; it was the only jurisdiction to show such gains in eighth-grade reading. Almost every student group, including African American and Hispanic children, improved. Though the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers persists, it has narrowed appreciably over time. The data demolishes critics’ contention that school improvement is the result of demographic changes in the student body.
Before then-Mayor Adrian Fenty bravely took control of the school system and installed Michelle A. Rhee as chancellor to implement uncompromising reform, the District ranked at the bottom of the country. It has risen closer to the state average and on some metrics exceeds the average for urban districts. The students who showed such dramatic gains this year have spent their entire school lives in reformed schools. They have benefited from early-childhood learning programs, high standards, enriched curriculum and an emphasis on accountability that has resulted in, and rewarded, teachers who are effective. They also have benefited from the consistency and steadfastness of leaders who followed Mr. Fenty and Ms. Rhee, including Vincent C. Gray as mayor and Kaya Henderson as schools chancellor.
The NAEP results, reinforced by recently announced increases in student enrollment, show that reform is working. So it is troubling that efforts are underway to roll back reform and undermine the improvements. Public charter schools, which provide critical choice for parents and helped to spur changes in the public school system, are under attack by opponents who want to deny them support and burden them with needless red tape and regulation. The school system’s teacher evaluation system (IMPACT) likewise is in danger as some D.C. Council members push to let the union make it less rigorous, while Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee signals an openness to change.
There is still much work to be done in improving public education in the District, and not every benchmark will show such dramatic improvement. But this much is clear: It would be highly irresponsible, and deeply unfair to the District’s children, to weaken the policies and programs that have helped make the District’s schools the fastest-improving in the nation.