No DC Child Left Behind So Long As White And Not Poor

December 12, 2010

The National Assessment of Educational Progress released the results of its 2009 math and reading tests a couple of weeks ago. The scores for District of Columbia public school students are, like last year’s, a good news/bad news story.

Good news first. Math and reading scores for both fourth and eighth graders improved somewhat.

Gains in math averaged five points at the fourth-grade level and six points at the eighth-grade level. Gains in reading also averaged five points for fourth graders. The average eighth-grade reading score went up by one point.

Only four states also registered gains on all four tests. Nationwide, fourth grade scores remained flat. Eighth grade scores went up by two points in math and, as in the District, one in reading.

Now the mostly bad news. The District’s scores were still lower than those of any state — thus well below the national averages. And the differences aren’t small.

For math, 20 points below the national average for fourth graders and 28 points below for eighth graders. For reading, another point spread of 20 points for fourth graders and, for eighth graders, 18 points.

For me, however, it’s the breakdowns that set off alarm bells.

Consider first the percentages of students whose scores fell below the basic level, i.e., who couldn’t demonstrate even “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at their grade level.

In math, 44% of fourth graders and 60% of eighth graders tested below basic, as compared to 19% and 29% nationwide. In reading, the below basic percentages were 56% for fourth graders and 49% for eighth graders, as compared to 34% and 26% nationwide.

That said, all the D.C. below-basic percentages were lower than in 2007. They were also, with the exception of eighth-grade reading, by far and away lower than in 1992, when NAEP began tracking.

Louder alarm bells when we look at the race/ethnicity breakdowns.

At the fourth-grade level,* the average math score for black children was 57 points below the average for white children. The average reading score was 60 points lower. And neither of these point spreads was significantly different from in 1992.

For Hispanic children, the gaps were 43 points for math and 49 points for reading. The math gap has narrowed significantly since 1992. The reading gap is statistically the same.

Here again, we need to be especially concerned about the children who are so far behind that they can’t score at even the basic level. For black children, 50% of them in math and 63% of them in reading. Percentages for Hispanic children were 30% in math and 49% in reading.

But look at the really big gap. All but 1% of white children broke through the basic level in math and all but 6% in reading.

Both the point spreads and the very low scores seem linked to family economic situation. Fourth graders poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches scored, on average, 31 points lower in math and 33 points lower in reading than their better-off counterparts. Though the reading gap was significantly narrower than in 1996, but math gap wasn’t.

In short, the D.C. public schools seem to be making some progress in teaching children the two most basic academic skill sets they’ll need to qualify for all but the lowest-paying jobs our local economy offers.

But black and Hispanic children are the overwhelming majority in the system and surely also in the free and reduced-price lunch category. Large numbers of both will still be at a huge disadvantage unless the reforms that have been initiated produce greater and faster results than I think anyone can reasonably expect.

* NAEP reports comparative race/ethnicity data only for D.C. fourth graders. It says that reporting standards weren’t met for white students at the eighth-grade level. No explanation for this, but the raw figures suggest it could be the very small number in the sample.


Rethinking No Child Left Behind

April 15, 2010

Eight years ago, the Bush administration and Congress set out to revolutionize public elementary and secondary education.

The lever was Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act–the single largest source of federal funding for public schools. The trigger was the persistent gap between the academic performance of white, relatively well-off students and the rest, i.e., racial and ethnic minorities,  students from very low-income families and students whose native language wasn’t English. Students with disabilities were on the low side of the gap too.

As the reauthorized Title I proclaimed, no child was to be left behind. Every state would have to test all children annually in reading and math, using its own challenging standards. And every school would be assessed according to whether every student subgroup made adequate year progress toward full proficiency.

Schools that persistently failed to demonstrate AYP for all subgroups would be subject to what amount to sanctions. Parents could send their children to other schools, thus depleting the failing school’s funds. Teachers could be fired, principals replaced, the school converted to a charter school or put into the hands of an outside entity. One way or another, the responsible local education agency had to do something drastic.

People I knew who’d been active in the civil rights movement were very high on No Child Left Behind because they thought it would, at long last, get schools to focus on the academic deficits of racial minorities.

A much broader spectrum of children’s advocates, education experts and business leaders liked it because it promised academic rigor, accountability, more state flexibility, parental involvement and targeted research-based corrective actions. Oh yes, and more federal funding.

We all know what happened. Schools narrowed curricula to focus on instruction in reading and math. Teachers “taught to the test.” Some states relaxed their standards to cool out public concern about bad scores. Prospects of sanctions encouraged administrators to open the exit door for low-achievers.

What with these various changes, scores on state test scores did improve. Scores on the more reliable National Assessment of Educational Progress improved somewhat as well. But race/ethnicity gaps remained nearly as great as before. And little wonder.

As Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute says, No Child was based on the view that schools alone could overcome deep-seated social and economic disadvantages and that they hadn’t because teachers just didn’t try hard enough.

It also placed almost exclusive emphasis on two basic skill areas, inadvertently motivating schools to eliminate courses that can engage a broader group of students in the learning enterprise–art, music, social studies, hands-on science, etc. If it didn’t discourage potential gifted teachers from entering the profession, it surely gave those who did an incentive to avoid placements in struggling schools or get out as soon as they could.

Fast forward to 2010. Reauthorization of No Child seems to be back on the agenda–two years after neither the House nor the Senate could agree on a bill. And some interesting things are happening.

On of the most interesting to me is an about-face by Diane Ravitch, one of the architects of the original No Child Left Behind. She’s now published a book tellingly titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

Under the current system, she says, we’re measuring what we can–not what matters most. As a result we’ve got a much less holistic approach to education than other successful nations.

Other experts in education and related policy areas have produced what they characterize as a broader, bolder approach to education. The premise here is that schools alone can’t close achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status. We need an expanded concept of education that recognizes the importance of learning before and outside the classroom, combined with a focus on “the whole person” instead of just basic academic skills and a narrow definition of cognitive growth.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is aware of the flaws in No Child. He was, in fact, one of the original co-signers of the broader, bolder approach.

But his remarks on reauthorization suggest he’s now more focused on tougher, broader standards, better tests and greater flexibility for state and local education agencies than in solutions to challenges that are well beyond of purview of public elementary and secondary education systems.

The administration’s priorities are by no means inconsistent with the broader, bolder approach. But I seriously doubt that tweaking No Child will come close to fulfilling the promise in its name.

The administration would need to fold it into a more expansive, integrated approach to child well-being–and to give up the view that carrots and sticks will eliminate social and economic problems that date back to pre-civil rights days.

DC Public School Test Scores Better, But Still Dismal For Disadvantaged Kids

October 19, 2009

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls education reform “the central front in the war on poverty, the civil rights issue of our time.” The poverty part reflects the tried-and-true view that a good education will do more to lift a person out of poverty than safety net programs. The civil rights part refers to our separate and unequal schools.

From that perspective, let’s take a look at the recently-reported improvement in the math scores of D.C. public school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. These scores are key indicators because NAEP is an impartial body, and its tests are uniform nationwide and consistent over time.

First, the good news:

  • Overall average scores for both fourth and eighth graders increased–up 5 points and 6 points respectively since 2007.
  • Longer-term increases were much greater–up 26 points for fourth graders and 19 points for eighth graders since 1992 (the earliest date reported for both grade levels).
  • For the first time since 1992, more than 50% of D.C. fourth graders scored at or above basic level, i.e., demonstrated “partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at grade level.

Now the rest:

  • Both fourth and eighth grade scores were lowest in the nation. They were 20 points below the national average for fourth graders and 28 points below the national average for eighth graders.
  • Forty-four percent of fourth graders and 60% of eighth graders scored below basic level, as compared to 19% of fourth graders and 29% of eighth graders nationwide.

What these overall figures don’t show are the continuing very large race/ethnicity gaps. At the fourth grade level (the only one for which comparative figures are available):

  • Ninety-nine percent of white students scored at or above basic level, while only 50% of black students and 70% of Hispanic students did.
  • Eighty-one percent of white students scored at proficiency level or above, as compared to 9% of black students and 18% of Hispanic students.
  • Black students scored, on average, 57 points lower than white students–a gain of just 5 points since 1992.
  • Hispanic students narrowed the gap by 13 points, but their average score was still 43 points lower than the average white student score.

So what does all this have to do with poverty? Well, consider that:

  • Fourth graders who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, i.e. at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, averaged 31 points lower than other fourth graders.
  • Only 48% of them scored at or above basic level, as compared to 81% of fourth graders from higher-income families.
  • For eighth graders, the score gap was 24 points, and only 34% of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches score at or above basic level.
  • Now look at the 2008 poverty rates–three and half times greater for blacks and two and half times greater for Hispanics than for non-Hispanic whites.

So it looks as if the large, racially-linked income gap in the District is playing itself out in students’ mastery of one of the major skill sets decent-paying jobs require.

Some of this probably has to do with difference in the quality of education that children in high-income and low-income neighborhoods receive. But part of it probably also has to do with impacts of poverty itself–instability, food insecurity, ill-health, over-stressed and/or absent parents, etc.

Schools can’t do anything about parental income. But D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s got work cut out for her to ensure that another generation of disadvantaged children aren’t “cemented into an underclass” by schools that leave so many children so far behind.

How Are Black Kids Faring In DC Public Schools?

July 17, 2009

As I was wrapping up my posting on the race gap in education, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report on the issue. Using the same scores I used from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it breaks down black/white reading and math scores by state.

Comparative scores for the District of Columbia are provided only for 4th graders. For these, there’s one bright spot. The 4th grade math score gap narrowed somewhat between 1992 and 2007.

But the 2007 figures are dismal–both for all D.C. public elementary school students and for the gaps between blacks and whites.

  • The District’s overall 4th grade math score was the lowest in the country–14 points lower than the next lowest states and 29 points lower than the all-U.S. score.
  • The overall reading score was also the lowest in the country–10 points lower than the next lowest state and 23 points lower than the all-U.S. score.
  • The gap between black and white math scores was the highest in the country–19 points higher than the next highest state and more than double the all-U.S. score gap.
  • The gap between black and white reading scores was also the highest in the country–29 points higher than the next highest state and nearly two and a half times the all-U.S. gap.

A couple of days ago, the District of Columbia Public Schools announced that scores on its own 2009 performance assessments were higher than 2008 scores, continuing an upward trend from 2007. This still leaves more than half its elementary school students below the proficiency standard for their grade level.

DCPS also reports narrower black/white race gaps in both math and reading, but not how wide the gaps are now. Given the size of the gaps in the NAEP scores and the reported progress figures, it’s still got a long way to go.