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Posted at 7:31 PM ET, 05/20/2010

D.C.'s NAEP scores: Don't get excited

By Valerie Strauss

To hear all the crowing about rising standardized test scores in D.C. public schools, you might think it was the first time that this had happened in the District and that Chancellor Michelle Rhee has worked some sort of minor miracle. It isn’t so.

My colleague Nick Anderson reported on newly released scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that show that fourth-graders in D.C. public schools -- not counting those in the city’s public charter schools -- gained about six points on a 500-point scale from 2007 to 2009. Eighth-graders gained about four points.

Charter school students--who make up 37 percent of the city’s population of 75,000 public students -- didn’t do so well; scores for D.C. charter schools showed no significant change in fourth grade and a drop in eighth grade.

For those people who believe that standardized test scores actually indicate something about how well a reform program is doing (I don’t), this is naturally good news for Rhee on all counts.

The numbers are going up for the city's traditional public schools but not in charter schools, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan is promoting with all of his might. Since charter school advocates like to cite test scores when they look good for their institutions, it’s only fair to note when they don’t.

D.C. scores are still way below the national average, and Rhee herself noted that “we still have a ridiculously long way to go.”

That’s been true for years, of course. But what is also true is that this is not the first time that NAEP scores have risen in the District. They were increasing long before Rhee arrived in the District in 2007.

Why does NAEP matter in the standardized testing world? Because it is considered the gold standard of standardized assessments and the only such test that is given in districts nationwide.

You can see the rise in the District's NAEP scores over time on the website of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. Here’s the link. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/

For example, here is the trajectory for average scores for fourth grade math.

The 2009 scores include traditional public and public charter school students, so the average scores will look different from the ones above.

Also, note that in the years that are starred, accommodations for special education students were not allowed. In the unstarred years, they were. In a few years, scores with and without accommodations were posted.

Fourth grade math:

1992*: 193
1996*: 187
2000*: 193
2000: 192
2003: 205
2005: 211
2007: 214
2009: 219



Math was never my subject, but it looks to me like there was a 13-point jump in scores from 2000-2003, then another 6-point jump from 2003-2005, and then another 3-point jump from 2005-2007. Under Rhee's tenure, there was a 5-point jump.

None of these increases are huge, considering that a 5-point jump is 1 percent on the 500-point scale, but the biggest jumps happened long before Rhee arrived.

One might choose to argue that the older scores don’t include charter school students, but don't forget that they didn’t improve on the latest NAEP tests. Do you wonder what all those other superintendents were doing to produce their increased scores?

Before I give you the rest of the scores, I’ll just note this: We need to be very careful about making too much out of these, or any standardized test scores. Average scores go up and they go down and they go up and down again. That’s the nature of testing.

We imbue these scores with big meaning at our own peril.

Here are some other average scores:

4th grade reading:

1992*: 188
1994*: 179
1998*: 182
1998: 179
2002: 191
2003: 188
2005: 191
2007: 197
2009: 202

8th grade math:

1990* 231
1992* 235
1996* 233
2000* 234
2000: 235
2003: 243
2005: 245
2007: 248
2009: 254

8th grade reading:

1998* 236
1998: 236
2002: 240
2003: 239
2005: 238
2007: 241
2009: 242

-0-
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By Valerie Strauss  | May 20, 2010; 7:31 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Math, Reading, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  D.C. schools and NAEP, D.C. scores rise, Michelle rhee, NAEP scores, TUDA and D.C., TUDA scores, rhee and schools, rhee and scores  
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Comments

If special education students aren't given accomodations, their scores are not a true measure of their abilities.

Posted by: jlp19 | May 20, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Sticking to the facts.
They are what they are.
The question is why have scores been rising over the past decade?
What was going on so it can be repeated and used through out the system.

Posted by: edlharris | May 20, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Valerie. Your columns are always a breath of fresh air and common sense.

Posted by: dz159 | May 20, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

Wow, I'm again shocked to see this in the Post. Thank you Valerie, you seem to be (other than Turque) one of the few who isn't so dazzled by Rhee's shoes that you can't do the job of actual reporting.

As a DCPS parent, I can tell you things have never been worse. Rhee may claim to put children's interests first, but that has not played out at my child's school. She is destroying good programs and good people. I'm so weary of this drama and I'm not certain if my family can't wait her out. She's that damaging.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | May 20, 2010 10:48 PM | Report abuse

If special education students aren't given accomodations, their scores are not a true measure of their abilities.

Special education accommodations have come to present the best way to "game" test results. A kid has add, read the reading test to him. Funny how effective that can be.

Posted by: mamoore1 | May 20, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

For 4th graders, the percent estimated "proficient" increased from 14% in 2007 to 18% in 2009.
Yet the % of Black 4th graders estimated proficient increased from just 9% to 11%. And the the % of White students estimated proficient barely budged, but from 74% to 75%, rounding error.
How does an increase averaging 1.5% show up as 4%? Bad or selected statistics? Not at all. The fraction of ALL enrolled DCPS 4th graders who were White has been going up. Their parents are not -- contrary to the slam -- wealthy. But, they have lots of education, commit themselves and their kids to their schools and education, and the kids are extremely high performers, raising the averages with their numbers. So, even without "improving" those kids, the system average has gotten a statistical boost.
This is called generating the illusion of improvement through market exploitation. Those parents and kids have every right to public education. And every resident has every right to expect real improvements from DCPS.

Posted by: incredulous | May 20, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, as a DCPS teacher who is trying to wade through the daily chaos created by Rhee, THANK YOU for some honest reporting. We've tried to tell the public this since Rhee had declared war on the teachers--that test scores have been rising since she came. I believe test scores continue to rise because of the reforms instituted by Janey when he was here, NOT Rhee. It's high time she's exposed for what she is--a complete fraud who is unqualified and incompetent for the job she holds. She keeps hiring all these folks who have no experience or very little experience in education, especially the classroom, like herself. If Fenty is reelected and she stays and she keeps on forcing her "reforms" and hiring incompetent people, I predict the system will implode.

Thanks also for exposing charter schools. Very few of them out-perform traditional public schools.

Rhee has run such a successful media and PR campaign that nothing we teachers say or do seems to make any difference with the public. We've been branded and incompetent, lazy and ineffective and that couldn't be further from the truth.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | May 21, 2010 7:20 AM | Report abuse

Urbandweller:
You are exactly right about two matters. The NAEP is not so sensitive to immediate instruction. It hasn't been prepped for, and responds to accumulated education. So, earlier reforms continue to pay dividends. To give Rhee her due, if the IMPACT teacher evaluation system improves instruction, it will take at least several years for that to show up in NAEP scores.

Second, while NAEP does not issue reports separately for DCPS and charter schools, it does report data for ALL public school students and for just DCPS students, as in the most recent release about 4th and 8th grade reading. So many students have by now been enrolled in charter schools and for so long, that differences between charter and DCPS students would show up in the difference the NAEP results for DCPS and all publics, or which they now constitute 40% of enrollment. At least for 4th graders, those differences are small, mostly within statistical sampling error. Charter school outputs are NOT the engine bringing up overall scores.

Posted by: incredulous | May 21, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Brava, Valerie - sounds like you've been reading the official statisics as well as the comments on your articles.

So when does your wisdom get in the print edition?

The editorial page maybe?

A reader can dream.

Posted by: efavorite | May 21, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

That you fail to directly compare the median scores for charter schools against public schools in DC could not possibly be more conspicuous. Why is that?

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | May 22, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

RealityCheckerinEffect:
The NAEP Data Explorer is available to you, as I previously wrote. If you know the % of students who are in charters, then use the simple fact that the available statistic for all public school students is the weighted average of the same statistic for DCPS students and charter school students. When published NAEP estimates for all public school students are no different than those for DCPS students, the unpublished estimates for charter school students you can calculate yourself will also be no different.

Posted by: incredulous | May 22, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

RealityCheckerinEffect:
The NAEP Data Explorer is available to you, as I previously wrote. If you know the % of students who are in charters, then use the simple fact that the available statistic for all public school students is the weighted average of the same statistic for DCPS students and charter school students. When published NAEP estimates for all public school students are no different than those for DCPS students, the unpublished estimates for charter school students you can calculate yourself will also be no different.

Posted by: incredulous | May 22, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for a sober and sobering analysis!

I agree that we shouldn't make too much out of test scores (or much at all) but since others do, and use them as the ONLY evidence that's allowed to demonstrate the success or failure of a program, I've been wondering...

Is it the case that this rise is due to the increasing number of high-performing charter schools? I know DC charter schools as a group didn't outperform DCPS, but some of them surely did: Capital City PCS and EL Haynes for example.

I think Post readers would benefit from a nuanced analysis of what (or who) is actually driving increased student achievement.

Posted by: jsw33ts | May 25, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

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