A record number of students in the District of Columbia public schools reached proficiency in reading and mathematics on the city's annual exams in 2013—growth that comes as the school system has moved aggressively to implement the more rigorous common standards, city and education leaders announced with much fanfare earlier today.
At a packed news conference held at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast Washington—where math and reading scores jumped 14 percentage points this year over 2012—Mayor Vincent Gray said the strong results across nearly every student subgroup and across every ward in the city stem from the massive restructuring of the school system that began in 2007 when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty won authority to run 45,000-student system.
"I think we are beginning to see the systemic changes we've all worked hard for," Mayor Gray said.
Even with its strong growth in 2013, less than half of all students—48.4 percent—were proficient across both math and reading. The charter school sector—which serves roughly 35,000 students—did better with an overall proficiency rate of 55.8 percent. And the racial achievement gaps remain very wide in the city's traditional public schools. Forty percent of African-American students were proficient or higher in math in 2013, compared to more than 91 percent of white students. In reading, the gap was even bigger, with 38.6 percent of black students demonstrating proficiency compared to 92.1 percent of whites.
Still, every student subgroup posted gains between 2012 and 2013 in both subjects, except for English-language learners, whose reading performance slipped slightly. ELLs make up 10 percent of the district's enrollment, said Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and are in need of more of focus and more investment.
Perhaps more than almost any other urban school system in the country, the District of Columbia has moved swiftly and comprehensively to put the common standards in reading and math into classroom practice and has made major investments to train and support teachers and students through that transition. (My colleague Catherine Gewertz has been closely documenting that transition at one middle school near the U.S. Capitol.) The annual exam—known as the DC CAS—was redesigned in 2012 to align with the new English/language arts standards, and this year to align with the new math standards.
City and education officials hailed the steady trajectory of growth seen over the past six years in the District of Columbia schools, and credited the progress to an array of changes—a new teacher-evaluation system, an almost complete turnover in the principal ranks, and more city resources sunk into classrooms to support teachers and students—that stem from the radical change in governance that put the mayor in charge of the system.
Still, it's important to note that the standards, curriculum, and the tests changed during that period, raising questions about how comparable results from 2012 and 2013 are with prior years.
But Chancellor Henderson said that since students' record performance this year was on a test that is more difficult than the old DC CAS, the progress can't really be in doubt.
"The test, I think, has not gotten easier," she said in an interview with Education Week. "The fact that more students are meeting the floor level of proficiency, fewer students are below basic and more students are at advanced than ever before provides an indication that we are going in the right direction, so that even with a more difficult exam or an exam more aligned to the common-core standards, we are showing progress."
She also said that while she does worry about what scores will look like when District of Columbia students take the new common assessments designed by the PARCC consortium of states in 2015, the district's early move to common-core implementation should help students and teachers be prepared.
"It doesn't mean we are going to ace [the new tests], but it doesn't mean we are necessarily going to tank them either," she said. "By exposing our young people as early as possible and our educators to the rigor and content of the common core, we we can be prepared as best as possible."
Henderson does not support a suspension or moratorium on testing for accountability during the transition period between the new standards being taught and the new assessments being ready for prime time. Other high-profile education leaders such as Montgomery County, Md., schools Superintendent Joshua Starr and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten have been pushing for that.
"I'm not afraid to help our community make the transition to a different test, but I do feel like we have to chart our progress," Henderson said.
Still hanging over the district's head are persistent suspicions that isolated instances of cheating on state tests in 2008 when Michelle Rhee was chancellor (and Henderson her deputy) were actually a sign of a more coordinated, sweeping effort to make the district's academic performance look better than it was. It's a suspicion that Henderson believes she has done everything possible to dispel. The district has adopted more rigorous testing security protocols over the last couple of years and are "equal to, or more secure" than any other measures used in districts across the country, Henderson said.
The constant questions about the integrity of student performance disturb her deeply.
"To see what's happening in our classrooms right now, to see the amazing things our teachers are doing, the amazing things that our principals are doing, and the amazing things that our young people are doing, and when they achieve, to have people say that it can't be real unless adults cheated is a kick in the stomach," she said. "If I could cut off my right hand just to not disrespect the people and the work they are doing, I would do it."