Editorial board cheerleads/misleads about those test score gains: The Washington, D.C. public schools recorded good score gains on the 2013 NAEP.
In yesterday’s featured editorial, the paper’s editorial board got its pom-poms out. They did some of their familiar cheerleading for “education reform.”
They also offered a misleading picture of score gains in D.C.
This is the way the editorial began, headline included. Much of this is technically accurate. Much of this is misleading
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/8/13): High marks for D.C. schoolsAs noted, the NAEP results for D.C. include traditional public schools and the city’s many public school charters. Test scores rose, by healthy amounts, in the past two years.
School reform in the District is working. That is the unassailable message of test scores released Thursday by federal education officials. Students at every level improved in reading and math, and the improvement exceeded the national average. Tremendous gains in the past two years show that there has been no lessening in the intensity of school reform under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
"A pretty remarkable story" was the apt summary by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who joined D.C. officials in celebrating the results of the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). This respected report card showed gains for District students of double digits in math and of nearly 10 points in reading since 2007, when the reforms began. Striking gains were achieved since 2011: five points in fourth-grade reading; seven points in fourth-grade math; six points in eighth-grade reading; and five points in eighth-grade math.
The NAEP results include both the traditional school system and public charter schools. While a significant achievement gap persists between minority students and white students, all subgroups of students, save English-language learners, improved. And while D.C. students still trail the national average, the steady, fast improvement puts them on pace to catch up.
In other words: The reforms started during the administration of former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, and sustained and refined under Mr. Gray and Ms. Henderson, are working. They are based on high standards, rigorous evaluation of teachers, an investment in pre-kindergarten and school choice.
Does that mean what the editors say? Does that mean “reform is working?” The editors oversimplify here, as they constantly do when they take their pom-poms out.
D.C. has a very unusual student population. White kids make up about ten percent of the student population. As a group, they tend to come from affluent, highly literate backgrounds.
They are the children of think tanks. For that reason, D.C.’s white kids outscore their counterparts in each of the fifty states. They’re the highest-scoring student cohort in the entire nation.
That said, the heart of the D.C. system, the system’s reason for being, is its large population of black kids. Their test scores were already rising before the current reforms took effect.
That editorial tracks score gains back to 2007, “when the reforms began.” This truncated history lets the editors get their pom-poms out.
The gains since 2007 have been pretty good. But below, you see the average scores in Grade 8 math for D.C.’s black kids dating to 2000, the first year in which scores are available.
All scores in today's post come from the NAEP. According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often compared to one academic year:
Black students, Washington D.C.The average score has risen by 16 points in the six years since 2007. But the average score rose by 14 points in the seven years before that.
Grade 8 math, NAEP
If we apply that very rough rule of thumb, those are large score gains—and the pattern predates 2007. A similar pattern obtains in Grade 4 math:
Black students, Washington D.C.That first score looks suspiciously low. (Sampling errors do happen.) But if we go to war with the test scores we have, score gains were actually larger before 2007.
Grade 4 math, NAEP
We don’t say this to knock the efforts which have been made since 2007. A lot of people have worked hard in the D.C. schools. They've had good ideas and bad.
We don’t say this to criticize them. We say this to criticize the Post’s editorial board, who have always behaved like cheerleaders in this arena, misserving the public interest.
Just to complete the picture, here are the reading scores for black kids during those years. As has been true all over the nation, the score gains have been smaller in reading than in math. But again, the score gains were already happening in the years before reform:
Black students, Washington D.C.Again, that 1998 Grade 4 score looks suspiciously low. From 1998 through 2007, the Grade 4 score bumps around in a peculiar pattern.
Grade 4 reading, NAEP
Black students, Washington D.C.
Grade 8 reading, NAEP
But score gains were being recorded before the watershed year of 2007. The board should stop playing cheerleader in this arena and start behaving like journalists.
Final note: D.C. test scores are relatively hard to interpret for several reasons. There is a churn between traditional schools and public charters which can create some confusion. Changes in policy concerning free lunch have made some comparisons tricky or impossible. The return of some high-scoring white students to the schools, traditional and charter, can obscure the overall picture.
(Emma Brown, in Friday’s news report: “White students now account for 10 percent of fourth-graders, up from 8 percent just two years ago, while the proportion of black fourth-graders fell from 77 to 73 percent during the same period.”)
D.C. test scores can be tricky. But according to Brown, black kids comprised 73 percent of the fourth-grade student testing this year. They are the heart of the D.C. schools—and they recorded good score gains on this year’s tests.
That said, those score gains are part of a pattern which predates 2007. The board should put its pom-poms away and pledge to present “the whole truth.”