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Urban NAEP Results: 'Regular' D.C. Schools Make Big Gains

Remember when the 4th and 8th grade NAEP results came in last month and the District of Columbia delivered some of the biggest gains in the country? One of the big questions hanging over the District then was this: Was its large and typically-better-performing charter school sector the big driver behind those gains?

Today's results from Trial Urban District Assessment, reported by my colleague Lesli A. Maxwell, give us an answer: nope. 

The reason that D.C.-watchers were waiting for the TUDA is that it includes only traditional public schools, not charter schools. If those scores were significantly lower than those on the regular NAEP, it would suggest that the charters—which can choose which students they serve—had carried the gains.

That's not what happened, however; the traditional D.C. schools topped the list of biggest improvements at both grade levels, in both math and English/language arts, of any of the 21 districts that participate as independent entities in that assessment.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson takes a victory lap in Lesli's story, noting that the District has turned in poor results for so long that it was easy for lots of people to assume it couldn't produce its own big gains. 

The need for those improvements is painfully obvious, too. Any celebration is tempered by a look not at the gains, but at the scores themselves. D.C. students' scores, like those of their urban peers nationally, are a proxy for their socioeconomic status. 

But when a district like D.C. begins producing substantial gains, an irresistible series of questions follows, despite the statisticians' warnings not to confuse correlation with causation. What produced the improvements? Did the demographic tilt toward a whiter, wealthier student population play a role? Did the city's tough and controversial new teacher evaluation system have anything to do with it?

What about the district's unusually intense embrace of the common core: did the related instructional units, professional development and school-based coaching (all documented in our four-part series, "A Steep Climb") make a difference?

Unfortunately, D.C. is one of the few cities that has occasion to reflect on such questions, since it was one of the few that posted big gains on TUDA. That in itself is a troubling—but troublingly unsurprising—sign of the gargantuan challenges that our big-city school districts face every day.

D.C. may be celebrating today, but I'm guessing the celebration will be short. Like most of the urban schools and administrative offices I've hung around in across the country, it is all too aware of its very long to-do list. Any minute now, it will be putting away the paper cups and getting back to that long, steep climb.

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