Michael J. Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio are president and vice president, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and fathers of school-aged children.
District parents and taxpayers recently received some sobering news: Only a quarter of D.C. students are on track in math, reading and writing. The numbers were even lower for the District’s African American and Latino students. Only 12 percent of African American and 21 percent of Latino sixth-graders were proficient in reading . And 9 percent of African American and 23 percent of Latino sixth-graders were proficient in math. Though these scores will likely shock many, let us explain why people shouldn’t shoot the messenger.
In 2010, the District — joined by more than 40 states — adopted the Common Core’s tough new standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students. Now we’ve reached a critical milestone in this effort, as the public is, for the first time, seeing the scores on the new tests aligned to the standards.
It’s critical to remember why so many states adopted higher standards in the first place. Under law, every state must test children every year in grades three through eight and once in high school to ensure they are making progress. This is a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their children are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the considerable funds we spend on schools are being used prudently.
But it is left to states and the District to define “proficient.” Unfortunately, most set the bar very low. This “juking of the stats” misled students and parents alike. As late as 2014, the District was reporting that 50 percent of its fourth-graders were “proficient” in reading, whereas a national assessment put the number at 25 percent.
This huge honesty gap had detrimental consequences. The result was a comforting illusion that most children were on track to succeed in college, carve out satisfying careers and stand on their own two feet. But in truth, this was a lie. Parents and taxpayers were told year after year that our kids were doing just fine, only to find out when they applied for college or a job that they were not as prepared as they needed to be.
This was a common and costly problem. Every year, about half of all community college students must take remedial courses when they arrive on campus. Many of those students will leave without a degree or any kind of credential. That’s an awful way to begin one’s adult life.
The District’s tougher new standards should help to boost college readiness — and college completion — by significantly raising expectations, starting in kindergarten. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the District found that just a quarter of its students are “on track” for college. Quite frankly, that’s what we should expect. Parents, in other words, are finally learning the truth.
This is a big and necessary shift from the days when many incorrectly believed that all of our children were above average. Parents and taxpayers should resist the siren song of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack the new standards or the associated tests. They may not be perfect, but they are finally giving parents, educators and taxpayers a much more honest assessment of how our children are doing.
Virtually all kids aspire to go to college and prepare for a satisfying career. Now, at last, we can honestly know if they’re on track to do so.