Students in the District’s traditional public schools scored higher than ever on the city’s math and reading tests this year, also posting the largest single-year gain since 2008, according to test results released Tuesday.
The city’s public charter schools, which had higher scores than the traditional system, made their biggest gains since 2009. For the first time, more than half of charter students scored proficient or above in reading on the city tests.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) hailed the results as evidence that the city’s overhaul of public education — including the advent of mayoral control of the schools and the rapid growth of charters — is working.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re on the right path,” Gray said. “We just need to stay the course.”
The District, which initiated major school reforms in 2007, has served as a test case for often controversial policies — such as expanding school choice, eliminating teacher tenure and tying evaluations to test scores — which have since been adopted by a growing number of states.
The city has had persistently low test scores and lags behind most of the rest of the country on many academic measures. But between 2007 and 2013, proficiency rates in math and reading increased 18 percentage points on the D.C. tests, including a four point gain in the past year, to 51 percent.
Still, student performance remains uneven and far lower than anyone deems acceptable.
“These numbers are encouraging, but they are still completely inadequate,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s Education Committee. Catania has introduced a suite of legislative proposals to again overhaul the schools, arguing that improvement has been too slow and inconsistent and that staying the course is not a solution. “Now is the time to continue to press ahead to look at what the barriers are that are prohibiting our kids from succeeding and remove them as quickly as possible.”
The D.C. tests, known as the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, are administered each spring to students in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 10. The tests offer a snapshot of student learning that officials use to judge schools, teachers and principals.
Students’ scores land them in one of four categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. The goal is to have students score proficient or better, meaning they meet grade-level standards. In the eighth grade, students are expected to understand the Pythagorean theorem and calculate the volume of cylinders and cones.
New math exams were introduced this year to test students’ ability to meet more rigorous Common Core standards, part of a national effort to standardize expectations for U.S. students. Reading tests were revised last year to align with the standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District.
Citywide, 53 percent of students are proficient in math and 49.5 percent are proficient in reading. While each subgroup of students — including economically disadvantaged children — made progress this year, achievement gaps remained stubbornly large: 92 percent of white students were proficient in reading, for example, compared with 52 percent of Hispanic students, 44 percent of black students and 42 percent of poor children.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson attributed the gains in part to new curricula, designed around the Common Core, that officials developed in the past two years.
The District’s push to identify and remove poor teachers, and to reward effective ones, is paying off, Henderson said. She also cited as successful a series of new initiatives, including experiments with longer school days and home visits by teachers.
Of eight schools with longer school days this year, seven made gains in both reading and math.
“We have a long way to go, but as the old commercial goes, we’ve come a long way, baby,” Henderson said.
In traditional schools, 49.5 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math on the 2013 exams, an increase of more than three percentage points from the year before. The proficiency rate in reading, which had been flat for several years, rose four points, to 47.4 percent.
Those gains represent the school system’s largest overall improvement since 2008, when scores jumped under then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Persistent allegations of cheating cast suspicion on those earlier gains, prompting officials to tighten security by controlling access to test booklets, increasing the number of outside monitors and forbidding teachers to administer exams to their own students.
In an interview Tuesday, Rhee said the 2013 results show that the District has made irrefutable progress. And they are reinforcement, she said, that the policies she brought to the District — and that she lobbies for nationally with her group StudentsFirst — are the right ones.