Greater Greater Education

Test scores are not improving for at-risk student groups

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the system's 2014 test scores yesterday, saying "we're continuing on an upward trajectory." However, a closer look at the scores reveals a stagnant or downward trajectory for black, Hispanic, low-income, English language learner, and special education students in the last five years.


Reading scores have declined among at-risk groups since 2009. Graph from DCPS with emphasis by the author.

It's true that reading test scores overall have increased since 2009, and slightly overall since last year. However, it's a different story for many demographic subgroups, including every at-risk subgroup: students receiving free or reduced price lunch (FARMS), black students, Latino students, special education students, and students whose first language is not English (called "English Language Learners"). For those students, scores have declined since 2009 and further since last year.

Math scores are mixed among at-risk subgroups since 2009

While reading scores have declined since 2009 among all at-risk subgroups, math scores look better.

Black and Hispanic students have gained on average since 2009, though white students have gained even more. Lower-income (FARMS) students and special education students gained slightly, while English language learners lost considerable ground.

The achievement gap is widening

The decline among at-risk subgroups, along with gains among white and Asian students, has widened the achievement gap in DC. The every-other-year federal test, NAEP, reports the gap between students eligible and not eligible for free and reduced price lunch.


2013 Department of Education report of 8th grade NAEP test scores with emphasis by the author.

However, this gap is nowhere in the 2014 CAS score reports by the Office for the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) or by DCPS. The Department said the following about this achievement gap in its most recent report on DC NAEP scores.

In 2013, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an average score that was 31 points lower than students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 1998 (25 points).
What does this mean for reform policies?

Can we draw any conclusions about DCPS's reform efforts from this data?

Scores did increase substantially in reading as well as math from 2007 to 2009, and are still above 2007 levels in all categories. DC Public Schools (DCPS) officials argue that 2007 should be the baseline (and therefore we should consider their reforms a success) because mayoral control of DCPS began in 2007.

However, the IMPACT teacher evaluation system went into effect in 2009. The first round of DCPS school closures was announced in the spring of 2008, and implemented over the next two years, well after students had taken the 2008 CAS test.

Most students taking the CAS tests in the spring of 2007, 2008 or 2009 were still unaffected by the IMPACT system or by school closures.

On the other hand, it may still be too early to judge the effects of any particular reform. Still, we must ask, how long will it take to know for sure?

Is DCPS really "on an upward trajectory"? If DC's education system is slowly growing but not for those groups where public education is most likely to make or break success in life, it is not doing its job.

Morning bell: Standardized test scores inch up


Photo by Eirien on Flickr.
Slow going: DC's annual standardized test results show a slight upward tick overall, with 54% of students scoring proficient in math and just under 50% in reading. The charter sector continued to outperform DCPS, and the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and others persisted. (Post)

Summer melt: Many disadvantaged students who have been accepted to college fail to show up in the fall, including some in DC. (Post)

Poverty comes to the suburbs: More Americans are now living in poverty in the suburbs than in urban or rural areas, and suburban schools will need to rely on models like community schools to grapple with the problem. (Ed Week)

Pre-K and crime: While some studies show that gains in test scores among kids who have attended pre-K fade after a few years, it seems that they're less likely to commit crimes later in life. (Vox)

The mark of the devil?: That's how one teachers' union leader characterized evaluation systems that rely on student test scores. But most teacher evaluations don't rest on test results, and when they do, the scores usually count for less than half a teacher's score. (Post)

Do Henderson's remarks at Stanton Elementary signal a more harmonious phase in DCPS-charter relations?

This morning's announcement of a slight rise in standardized test scores wasn't exactly earthshaking. More intriguing was the backdrop: Stanton Elementary in Ward 8, a DCPS-charter collaboration that DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson said today she'd like to replicate. It's about time.


Photo of Stanton Elementary from DCPS.

Henderson's statement comes in the wake of signs that the cordial relationship between DCPS and DC's charter sector is beginning to break down. Henderson recently called for joint planning that would control the growth of charters, raising the ire of the charter community.

And just yesterday, a charter advocacy organization sued the District for failing to comply with a legal requirement to fund charters at the same level as DCPS.

Both sides have justifiable grievances. But collaboration between the two sectors is the best hope of advancing their shared goal of improving education for all kids in DC as quickly as possible. For a while it looked like DC was on that path, and then things stalled. Do Henderson's remarks at Stanton today signal that she's ready to return to the idea?

For the past 3 years, a charter management organization, Scholar Academies, has been managing Stanton as a regular DCPS neighborhood school, serving an in-boundary student population. During that time enrollment and test scores have risen dramatically.

The big news today was that the school had moved out of "Priority" status, meaning that it's shown significant growth over 3 consecutive years. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of a charter school that is also managed by Scholar Academies, DC Scholars.)

Even before today, Stanton had become something of a showpiece for DCPS. During a visit from Education Secretary Arne Duncan in February, Mayor Vincent Gray said of the school's success, "We simply need to bottle this and figure out how to proliferate it all around the city."

Today, according to a tweet from the Post's Michael Alison Chandler, Henderson called Stanton "an amazing example of what happens when we work together," referring to charters and traditional schools. And according to WAMU's Martin Austermuhle, she said the Stanton-Scholar Academies model "could be taken to other struggling DCPS schools."

Why hasn't Stanton been replicated already?

The question is why that hasn't happened already. Last year, instead of trying to replicate the Stanton-Scholar Academies arrangement, Henderson made an unsuccessful bid for the power to authorize charter schools herself. In May 2013, she announced that a high-performing DC charter school in Ward 8, Achievement Prep, would absorb a nearby DCPS elementary school, Malcolm X.

The details were vague at the time, but according to Scheherazade Salimi, chief of staff to the Deputy Mayor for Education, the plan was for Achievement Prep to become the first DCPS charter school. A bill that would have given Henderson chartering authority was introduced in the DC Council a year ago, but it went nowhere.

A spokesperson for David Catania, chair of the Council's education committee, said he saw no need for a second charter authorizer in addition to the Public Charter School Board (PCSB). Besides, the spokesperson said, a charter authorizer is supposed to provide oversight of charter operators, as the PCSB does. If one entity is both the authorizer and the operator, how would that work?

It's clear why Henderson would have liked chartering authority. It would have allowed her to give Achievement Prep more freedom from DCPS regulations than Scholar Academies has had at Stanton. And there's no doubt that charter operators undertaking the difficult task of turning around a low-performing neighborhood school would find greater autonomy more attractive.

But it's also possible for Henderson to relax some of the rules that have been in place at Stanton. While some are required by DCPS's contract with the teachers' union, others are within her control.

Today's announcement seems to indicate that she's figured out a way to do that, and that she may have found a willing charter school partner. (For the past 6 weeks I've been asking a DCPS spokesperson what tools are available to Henderson to collaborate with charters in improving DCPS schools, but I haven't been able to get an answer.)

Cross-sector collaboration

It's too bad that Malcolm X, which narrowly avoided closure on the expectation that it would be taken over by Achievement Prep, will continue for at least one more year as a struggling DCPS school rather than as part of a high-performing charter. But it's heartening to hear that DCPS and Henderson are at last beginning to focus again on cross-sector collaboration.

Some may view this kind of collaboration as an admission of defeat on the part of DCPS. I disagree. As Henderson has said, if some charter schools have figured out how to raise the achievement of low-performing students faster than DCPS has, why not take advantage of their expertise?

Certainly one advantage that charters have had is freedom from bureaucratic constraints that can stifle innovation. But as Scholar Academies has proved at Stanton, it's possible to succeed even despite those constraints, if you have the right charter operator. (One previous partnership with a charter operator, at Dunbar High School, ended in spectacular failure.)

It's clear what's in this kind of arrangement for DCPS and Henderson: they get to claim the success of a district-charter partnership, and the rising test scores that result, as their own.

But what's in it for charters? Why shouldn't they just adopt the easier path of opening new start-ups, a less difficult road to success than turning around a neighborhood school that's failing?

There are at least two important things that could attract charters to a partnership. One is buildings. New charters and successful charters that would like to expand are often stymied by a shortage of suitable space, partly because DCPS has been reluctant to give up its vacant buildings to charters.

The other is a chance to serve more of the District's neediest students. Taking over the management of a struggling DCPS school, along with its students, is an immediate way to reach kids who need help the most, without requiring their parents to apply or enter a lottery.

Benefits of communication

Beyond those advantages, there's the more nebulous benefit of communication between the frequently hostile charter and district sectors. That's beginning to happen elsewhere across the country, both at high administrative levels and at the level of the individual school.

In some places, districts have invited charters to "take up residency" in traditional public schools, in a space-sharing arrangement that includes opportunities for collaboration and shared professional development. In others districts, teachers from charter and traditional schools that are nearby have met to exchange ideas.

While the expectation has been that the traditional schools will learn something from charters, sometimes it's the other way around. In one instance, young Teach for America recruits at a charter wanted to know how the district teachers had managed to stay in the profession for so long and keep themselves motivated.

In DC, charters generally outperform DCPS schools on standardized tests, but they don't have a monopoly on innovation. Charter leaders might be interested to learn about a new writing initiative DCPS is piloting that promises to go way beyond teaching to the test.

While DC's charter and traditional education sectors do have conflicting interests and long-standing grievances, they also have a lot of shared beliefs and interpersonal relationships. If cross-sector communication and collaboration is possible anywhere, it should be here. For the sake of DC's kids, let's hope that Henderson's statements today mark the beginning of a new and more harmonious tone in DCPS-charter relations.

Morning Bell: Charters take DCPS to court


Photo of courtroom from Shutterstock.
DC charters allege unfair funding: A charter association and two charter schools have filed a lawsuit contending DC has shortchanged them $2,150 per student for the past six years. Public education advocates counter that regular schools bear added costs of serving all students and the larger community. (Post)

New graduation requirements raise questions: DC's State Board of Education is proposing new competency-based measures of achievement, but it's not clear how they would be implemented and whether DC's other education officials are on board. (Informer)

PCSB chair airs views: The chair of DC's Public Charter School Board, Skip McKoy, tentatively endorsed the notions of coordinated planning with DCPS and allowing charters that take over DCPS school buildings to exercise a neighborhood preference. (Examiner)

Unaccompanied minors in Montgomery: In the wake of an influx of young immigrants from Central America to the region, the county's schools enrolled 107 unaccompanied minors, most of them at the high school level. (WTOP)

It's poverty, not parents: Black parents value education, but they often lack the resources to give their kids what they need to succeed. (Post)

Schools struggle to cope with e-cigarettes: Given the absence of state and federal laws governing e-cigarettes, schools nationwide forge their own policies on these new and increasingly prevalent nicotine delivery systems. (Ed Week)

The 100-child, one-room schoolhouse?: Detroit is experimenting with larger kindergartens100 students, three teachers, and much hubbubwith uncertain results. (Post)

Morning Bell: Teaching myths debunked

Fourth-grade shift a myth?: New neuroscience casts doubt on the idea that children shift from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" in 4th grade. A study found that even 5th-graders don't process words as automatically as adults. (NPR)

Some 1st-graders gain with traditional math: Research suggests that teacher-led explanation and traditional drill works better than more creative approaches when it comes to imparting basic skills to struggling students. (Hechinger Report)

Forget "natural born": Far from being an innate talent, good teaching is a set of key skills, all of which can be taught. (NYT)

Region makes room for child refugees: Roughly 15% of the 30,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived in the US from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala this year have found a haven in Greater Washington, home to the second-largest Central American community in the nation. School districts can draw on federal funds to deal with the influx, but there may be a lag time. (Post, Ed Week)

New spending rules in Montgomery: County school board members voted to give up their credit cards and adopted restrictions on expenditures after public disclosure of improper charges. School districts can draw on federal funds to deal with the influx, but there may be a lag time. (Post, Ed Week)

Collaboration initiative: A first-year principal won a $25,000 award for fostering collaboration among teachers at her New York City public high school. (Chalkbeat/NY)

Girls get bullied more: Girls are bullied more than boys at every grade level, but the disparity rises markedly with age, according to a federal report. (Post)

Better living through carpentry: An East Bay private school for boys is experimenting with a mix of academics and what used to be called shop class to shape its diverse student body into tomorrow's resourceful and respectful men. (NPR)

DCPS and charters are sparring over joint planning, but the real question is how to preserve neighborhood schools

DCPS wants the charter sector to engage in joint planning that would limit the number and location of charter schools. Charter advocates oppose the idea. Ultimately, the disagreement is not about planning, but about what kind of school system the District should have.

Seven years ago, the charter sector served only about 20% of DC's students. That figure is now up to 44% and poised to grow larger.

The Public Charter School Board has already given its approval for 3 new schools to open in 2015, and two existing charters are likely to expand. One of the new schools is part of a network, Rocketship Education, that could enroll over 5,000 students here by 2019.

If current trends continue, what will DC's school system look like in the future?

Chances are it will never be composed entirely of charter schools. There are still no charters in affluent Ward 3, and parents there are generally satisfied with the quality of the traditional public schools.

But the day will soon come when over half the District's students are enrolled in charters. It's not hard to imagine a time when DCPS becomes a vestigial presence in most of the Districtor even disappears.

Charter success

In some ways that might well be a positive development. Many DC charters that focus on minority and low-income students have outperformed DCPS schools serving a similar population. Last year, a Stanford University study found that charter students in DC gain the equivalent of an additional 99 days of learning compared to those enrolled in DCPS.

Not all charter schools achieve those results, of course. But the Public Charter School Board has recently closed a number of charters that are under-performing, or made it possible for successful charter organizations to take them over. And it has set a high bar for approving new charters, rejecting 5 of the 8 applications that came before it this year. As a result, DC's charter sector is among the best in the nation.

But one thing charters can't provide, at least as they're currently constituted, is a guaranteed slot in a nearby location. I've heard charter leaders say that the right to a low-quality neighborhood school is no right at all, and there's some truth to that. But many parents, at all socioeconomic levels, feel that a chance at a high-quality school on the other side of town isn't what they're hoping for either.

Neighborhood schools

There are other factors weighing in favor of neighborhood schools aside from parent preferences. From an efficiency and environmental standpoint, it makes no sense to have families and students crisscrossing town twice a day to get to school.

And a system that relies on choice almost inevitably ends up working to the disadvantage of the least sophisticated members of a community, who may lack the knowledge or the initiative to get their children into the most desirable schools. That's what seems to be happening in Chicago and other cities with an all-choice high school system. To some extent, it's already happened in DC.

Charter schools could go a long way towards resolving these problems by agreeing to give a preference to kids in their neighborhoods. But the charter community as a whole has opposed the idea, even when an individual charter simply wants to exercise that option.

So at this point, as far as neighborhood schools go, DCPS is the only game in town. Theoretically, competition from charters should spur DCPS to improve its low-performing schools, and some charter leaders seem puzzled by, or scornful of, DCPS's apparent inability to equal their success.

It's clear to me that DCPS is trying hard, and in some cases those efforts have borne fruit. But the very success of charters has made it more difficult for DCPS to compete.

DCPS's challenges

As the charter sector has grown, DCPS has seen its resources decrease, since some of its funding has followed students who leave for charters.

Perhaps more important, it's also increasingly been left with the students who are hardest to educate. I don't mean that charters deliberately skim off the better, more motivated students. Especially given the participation of the vast majority of charters in the common lottery, I doubt that's taking place. And it's also true that charters have their share of kids who are homeless or have learning disabilities or other challenges.

But low-income parents who take the trouble to apply to a charter are likely to be more invested in their children's education than those who just rely on the default setting. That can make a significant difference to a child's ability to achieve.

And some students, voluntarily or not, end up leaving charters for DCPS schools, often showing up at random points throughout the school year. Additional students enroll mid-year because they move into the area or switch from another DCPS school.

Having to absorb students, some of whom have behavior problems, well after the school year has begun can cause disruption for everyone. And it's something charter schools don't have to deal with. While some do continue to take students throughout the year, many high-performers, such as the KIPP GROW KEY middle school or Thurgood Marshall Academy, choose not to.

Some charter leaders say their schools could overcome these challenges if they had to. But the fact is, they haven't had to, so we don't really know.

If neighborhood schools are worth preserving, the question is: how can we ensure that the only neighborhood schools we haveDCPS schoolsnot only survive but thrive?

Further rapid expansion of charters doesn't seem to be the answer. But imposing limitations on a hostile charter sector, under the guise of "joint planning," is also less than optimal. What's needed is genuine cooperation, so that the two sectors can achieve their shared goal of providing an excellent education to all of DC's kids as quickly as possible.

In a future post I'll consider how DCPS and the charter community might be able to move beyond the argument over joint planning and find opportunities to collaborate that each side could enthusiastically embrace.

Morning bell: DC students focus on the future but encounter challenges

Thinking ahead: A DCPS summer program introduces middle schoolers to potential careers by taking them on field trips. (Post)

Overcoming obstacles: Valedictorians from one of DC's high-poverty high schools feel out of place and unprepared at elite colleges, but persevere. (Post)

Charter named in lawsuit: Seven weeks after suing the founder of Community Academy charter school for self-dealing, the DC government has added the school as a defendant. (Post)

Pay for veteran teachers: Mid- and late-career teachers in the US generally earn paltry salaries, but a few citiesincluding DCare exceptions to the rule. (Center for American Progress)

Preschool discipline: A panel on the Kojo Nnamdi show explored the issue of suspensions for preschoolers, and one mother asks whether her young sons have been disciplined more harshly because of their race. (WAMU, Post)

Tech in Montgomery: The county's board of education has authorized a $15 million contract for the purchase of 40,000 laptops and tablets. (Post)

No more half-days: The Fairfax County School Board has voted for a full day on Mondays in its elementary schools, agreeing to spend $7.6 million on the effort. (Post)

Not all poor students are the same: Students from isolated communities with deep generational poverty face challenges that other low-income students don't. (Post)

Math lessons: Americans are no good at math because teachers haven't learned how to teach it. (NYT) Nevertheless, we're actually better at math than we used to be. (Eduwonk) ...Parents should try to be math coaches for their kids rather than math teachers. (NYT) Students don't derive any long-term gains from a double dose of math class. (Ed Week)

Morning Bell: Troubling, heartening trends for DC children


Photo of children from Shutterstock.
Gains, losses for capital's kids: A new foundation report shows mixed trends for DC youth: a twofold increase in 4th-grade reading proficiency and a surge in preschool attendance in recent years, but a rising percentage of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods. And 77% of 4th-graders still aren't proficient in reading. (Annie E. Casey Foundation, Post)

No cap, but more coordination: The Post editors reject a cap on the number of charter schools and see nothing wrong with competition in education. But they say it's time for more coordination with DCPS, along with an examination of neighborhood preference and "modifications" in the charter approval process.

Take away our credit cards: An ad hoc committee of the Montgomery County School Board urged the district to stop issuing credit cards for board members after an independent review revealed members had used the cards for personal items. (Montgomery Gazette)

PG teen wins arts award: An 18-year-old from Prince George's County credits his art teachers at Suitland High School for the illustration skills that won him a gold medal in an NAACP-sponsored competition. Another county high school grad won a silver medal in architecture.(Post)

Beck and allies blast Common Core: Right-wing radio commentator Glenn Beck has turned his sights on the Common Core standards. Beck keynoted a Texas rally that was broadcast to nearly 700 theaters in 50 states. (Politico/Morning Education)

Parent's group pushes privacy: Two veteran activists are spearheading creation of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, an advocacy group that wants changes made to a federal law that lets schools share student data with vendors. (Politico/Morning Education)

DCPS and its teachers' union are at an impasse over extending the school day. Could this be a way out?

After experimenting with an extended day for students, one New Haven school realized it made more sense to extend the day for teachers, so they would have time to collaborate. Could that work in DC?


Photo of clock from Shutterstock.

Citing gains in test scores at charter schools and a few DCPS schools that have tried adding more hours to the school day, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced her intention to extend hours at dozens more schools. But the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) has blocked those plans, saying the school day should be made better before it's made longer.

The experience of one school in New Haven seems to bolster the WTU's positionup to a point. Brennan-Rogers, a pre-K-through-8th-grade school that was one of the city's lowest-performing, extended its students' day by an hour and 25 minutes during the 2010-11 school year. The idea was to close the achievement gap between the school's mostly minority and low-income students and their wealthier peers.

The results: kids felt like they'd been punished, teachers were exhausted, and test scores actually dropped. After one year, the students returned to their traditional 6-and-a-half-hour day.

But the principal felt that the most promising part of the experimentadditional time for teachers to collaboratewas worth keeping. She proposed that teachers show up an hour early every day, and the teachers agreed to try it. They've been doing it for the past 3 years.

Even though the school day is shorter than it used to be, kids seem to be learning more. For the past two years, Brennan-Rogers has posted the largest gains in the New Haven district on state standardized tests. The atmosphere is calm and orderly, and teachers are happy with the arrangement. And the district as a whole has shifted its focus to adding time for teachers rather than kids, starting with 15 minutes a day under the latest union contract.

The power of collaboration

Lately, there's been a good deal of attention focused on the importance of teacher collaboration. A report on ways to increase teacher retention has recommended more time for collaboration, as has a DCPS teacher who recently lunched with President Obama. And a writing program being piloted in DCPS, which is having dramatic results, depends largely on teachers having time to work together on planning.

New teachers obviously benefit from being able to talk with and learn from their more experienced peers. But even veteran teachers value the opportunity to compare data about students, coordinate teaching and behavioral strategies, and discuss the merits of different approaches. That's true both within schools and between schoolsincluding between charter and traditional public schools.

Right now many schools in DC don't allow teachers time for these opportunities, possibly undermining efforts to improve student achievement. Ideally, both students and teachers would get more well-planned time in their day at under-performing schools. But if that's not possible, why not try giving it to the teachers? Many of them might actually jump at the chance.

Morning bell: Answers and questions about DC's schools


Photo of question mark from Shutterstock.
Not taking no for an answer: The plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging school closures say they'll appeal a ruling that DCPS closed the schools for reasons having nothing to do with discrimination. (Post)

What if?: A DCPS teacher reflects on his lunch with President Obama and imagines a world where low-income kids learn to write they way they'll be expected to in college, and teachers get time to collaborate. (Hechinger Report)

Using the summer to catch up: Prince George's County is providing a free 6-week program to 500 rising second-graders who are below grade level in reading and math. (Post)

Rocketship slows trajectory: The California-based Rocketship charter network, which will open a school in DC next year and could ultimately serve over 5,000 students here, has recently suffered a slip in test scores and scaled back expansion plans. Its critics are celebrating, but some say the network is still doing far better than its competitors in the traditional public school sector. (Hechinger Report)

And : American kids are getting healthier and better educated, but progress has been glacial. (Ed Week) A Slate article blaming private schools for Sweden's drop in test scores was full of mistakes. (Education Next) Answers on standardized tests are based on specific textbooks, and many low-income students lack access to them. (The Atlantic) ... What good are "college-and-career-ready" K-12 standards if colleges don't buy into them? (New America Foundation)

Support Us
CC BY-NC