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Best blog by far on D.C. test scores

Reading the blog of the mildly mysterious G.F. Brandenburg, I gathered a clue to why the reports there are so easy to read for geezers like me who squint a lot at computer screens. Brandenburg reveals in passing that he retired as a D.C. teacher recently, so he is likely not too far from my age cohort, and understands us deeply.

Bless him, and not just for the amazing clarity of his written words. He is savage toward D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, whom I highly regard. But there is no substitute for his analysis of what is happening with D.C. achievement scores, and the ways they are being used for various political purposes.

Here is his deft analysis of what has happened to elementary scores, which have gone up, and then down, in the Rhee era:

Contrary to the spin put on things by [D.C. Mayor Adrian] Fenty and Rhee, at the elementary level, virtually all of the increases on DC-CAS scores over the past 4 years happened during the period ’07 to ’08. And it so happens that 2006 was the first year that DCPS switched to using the DC-CAS as its major standardized test, instead of using the Stanford-9 (also known as the SAT-9). That was under superintendent Janey.

Anybody familiar with standardized testing can tell you that the very first year that a school district switches to a new test, the test scores will generally drop. And drop they did, in comparison with 2005′s SAT-9 scores, the scores on the 2006 DC-CAS were much, much lower. Then, as time goes on, teachers and administrators become more familiar with the new test, do a better job of preparing their students for the new test, and scores gradually improve.

Did that huge drop from ’05 to ’06 mean that all of a sudden, DCPS schoolteachers suddenly started doing a much worse job of teaching, or that all of a sudden all of the students stopped studying or attending classes regularly, or that all of the parents and administrators had given up on the students?

Of course not.

There is much more. Stroll through GFBrandenburg's Blog and you will understand much better what has been happening to testing in the District in the Rhee era, and before. I think he is much too hard on Rhee's people, questioning actions that seem to me motivated not by craven ambition but a desire to raise achievement for kids and measure progress. But he presents the data straight, and provides much more of it than you will see in The Post, a mainstream publication that covers many school districts and has neither the space nor the manpower to look so minutely at each one.

In the post I quoted above, Brandenburg also explains, with an interesting personal story, how difficult it has been for him, with his healthy obsession for test data, to figure out how well the city's main tests, the DC-CAS, are measuring the learning standards set out for its schools.

We are in the last few weeks of a major political campaign in which school progress is a major issue. If you care about this stuff, you have to read Brandenburg.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page.

By Jay Mathews  | August 3, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  GFBrandenburg's Blog best on D.C. test scores, blog necessary to understand D.C. schools, how hard it is for a teacher to see what's on the test, why the elementary school gains were mostly in one year  
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Those who live by the score, die by the score.

Posted by: edlharris | August 3, 2010 6:46 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for posting that link Jay. You made my day! What an amazing analysis of test scores and high v. low-achieving districts.

I encourage everyone to read Brandenburg's Blog. Of course, the reality is that education research has tied student achievement (test scores) to socioeconomic status for many, many years. This analysis is not new but it is extremely detailed and the points this blogger makes are absolutely devastating to the "poor achievement=poor teaching" line currently being touted by Rhee, Duncan and President Obama.

The one point Brandenburg makes that really hit home for me was this: the inner-city (poor district) white students who also happpened to be affluent had higher achievement that either poor black or poor white students in the wealthiest suburban districts. The question is obvious: If suburban, high achieving schools are doing such a good job of teaching, how come their own poor students do worse than those students from a poor district, with low scores and allegedly poor teachers? Good question.

Best of all, Brandenburg highlights the need for different education tools for different types of students. Needier students need more education supports and more highly-trained teachers. I completely agree. By all means, let's invest in what truly works to improve educational outcomes for poor students instead of engaging in unfounded attacks on the teaching profession.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | August 3, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse

Brandenburg is the greatest on data – no doubt about that.

He does good commentary, too and once was kind enough to feature a guest column I wrote giving my perspective on the “Core Beliefs” for strategic planning set forth on the DCPS website. Here’s the link to my guest column:

And here’s the link to the DCPS “Core Beliefs” section:

The link to that page on Brandenburg’s site is currently broken, but all the other links seem to work fine.

Posted by: efavorite | August 3, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

During my 42 years of teaching I had the good fortune to teach in an affluent school, an average income school and a very low income school in the "inner-city" of Cleveland.

In the affluent school my students scored, on average, around the 90th percentile; in the average school, most scored around the 50th and in the very low-income school, BELOW the tenth percentile. Yes, below the tenth percentile.

Researchers have told us for years that test scores correlate very closely with socioeconomic status and yet journalists are just catching on to this important fact. The implications for teachers are very clear:

As long as the current practice of judging teachers by test scores continues, teachers should do everything possible to teach in affluent districts. If they can't get a job in a high-income school, they should substitute in one until a position becomes available. Another option would be to teach in a private school until public school jobs become available again, which I predict will be soon.

If a teacher opts for a job in a poor school, there is a good chance she'll be labeled a "poor" teacher. If she teaches in an affluent school, it's almost a sure thing that her students and their parents will make her look "excellent." This is why we hear about all the "ineffective" teachers in DC, while Scarsdale, NY doesn't seem to have any at all.

I feel so sorry for teachers trapped in low-income districts at this time. They might not have many options for themselves but surely they can warn their students, friends, relatives and neighbors to stay away from these schools.

Even a teacher has a right to protect herself.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | August 3, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

For Linda/RetiredTeacher----All you say is true, but what do you say to the teachers at places like KIPP who take kids who are testing in the 30s and manage to raise them to the 60s and 70s?

Posted by: jaymathews | August 3, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Here's another link to "core beliefs" on the DCPS website:

This one is found by clicking "about" then "who we are"

The page is titled "Who we are: A Broad Community Committed to a Greater Purpose"

and has five headings
- Who we are
-Our common purpose
- What we believe [this is where the core beliefs are listed]
- Where we are headed
- Learn more about DCPS

Posted by: efavorite | August 3, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse


As I have said many times, I do not believe in the validity of these scores. From what I've seen and heard, I believe teachers are drilling the kids on the exact test items.

Also, even though the students at KIPP have the same economic backgrounds as their traditional public school peers, most have parents who value education enough to apply to the charter school. That is a huge advantage for the children. Most poor parents are good parents. A school filled with students whose parents applied to the school will almost always have higher test scores.

To answer your question directly: If the teachers feel good about teaching at these schools, then of course they should continue to do so.

I'd like to see some independent researchers go into some of these high-scoring schools and give a test that the students (and teachers) have never seen before. How would they do then?

I'm sorry to be such a cynic but I've seen a lot.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | August 3, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

"what do you say to the teachers at places like KIPP who take kids who are testing in the 30s and manage to raise them to the 60s and 70s?"

Jay - you know the answer to this - longer school hours, more motivated parents, better discipline, higher attrition, teachers who work much longer hours.

KIPP is not selective, in the sense of choosing high-performing kids (like elite private schools do). Instead, it is self-selective, in that motivated parents send motivated kids there. If they don't follow the rules, they're out, just like the kids in private schools.

I think schools like KIPP play an important role in public education, but they are not typical and do not serve all lower-income students.

Posted by: efavorite | August 3, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

The KIPP scores cited are true at SOME schools, certainly not all. High scores are fine and good but they should not be the sole objective of education. Jay is "Johnny-one-note" on the scores. There should be so much more than just teaching-to-the-test.

Consider KIPP staff - elite-school wonders who mostly move on after 2-3 years. Some do it to pad the resume; to others it's a quick job right out of college while they figure out what's next. Classroom teaching as a career is certainly not it. They find out soon enough at KIPP that there is almost no time or energy for a personal life after the long, exhausting hours with students and Saturday visits and follow-ups. Very few want, much less sustain this as a way of life and career. Goodness knows there are so many already like that in every public school in the country. They are called dedicated teachers. Yet they stay on the job while scapegoated by the government and villified by many of the public.

KIPP-style is out-sourcing and cheapening the profession in the worst way. Too bad we can't import hundreds of thousands of people from "India", euphemistically speaking, to take over education in America and be run by the corporatists. After all, numbers are the only bottom line here, right? Student scores? Profits? Government contracts?
Wake up and smell the ----!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | August 3, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Jay- The answer to your question is obvious: KIPP operates very little like a traditional public school. KIPP students receive FAR more instructional time than students in either inner city or suburban schools. This allows their poor students with learning deficits to literally make up what they lack.

While KIPP's program requires more funding than many urban districts will allocate, that's not true of suburban schools. Many of their students have double the funding of their inner city counterparts. Clearly, they are not spending that money on "seat time" and yet they have excellent achievement.

Isn't it a shame that legislatures around the country refuse to fund education sufficiently so that ALL students, instead of a small handful, have access to effective educational programs?

Posted by: Nikki1231 | August 3, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

To repeat what others have typed, especially as I typed this before and Jay acknowledged it, the kids at KIPP get more instruction time.
Also, KIPP does not go into a school, take it over with all the students who were there, take all those who move into the school's boundaries and keep them unless they are expelled for criminal activitiy.
As efavorite noted, they are self-selected.

As for test scores, the 2 KIPP schools in Indiana are scoring below the state average.

Posted by: edlharris | August 3, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

But he presents the data straight, and provides much more of it than you will see in The Post, a mainstream publication that covers many school districts and has neither the space nor the manpower to look so minutely at each one.
Why do we need these false statements from Mr. Mathews?

The D.C. scores reported in the Washington Post were obviously questionable.

Proficiency on or above National test of D.C. 2009
math 4th grade 17 percent
math 8th grade 11 percent
reading 4th grade 17 percent
reading 8th grade 14 percent

The D.C. claims of tests results of 32 percent and above being proficient, were ludicrous when viewed in comparison to the result national tests.

Mr. Mathews should stop this pretense. The Washington Post has the capabilities of looking at a government website and the above figures of the national tests were easily obtained.

I guess from Mr. Mathews, we should expect that the policy of the Washington Post is simply to write articles from press releases and that it should not be expected of the Washington Post to check the validity of press releases.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Instructions for Mr. Mathews and for the Washington Post.

Go to Website given at top.

Press on picture of state. For D.C. press on box with label District of Columbia.

Look at results. This will require reading.

Compare results with results claimed by state or D.C. This will require thinking.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

"what do you say to the teachers at places like KIPP who take kids who are testing in the 30s and manage to raise them to the 60s and 70s?"

Jay - you know the answer to this - longer school hours, more motivated parents, better discipline, higher attrition, teachers who work much longer hours.

Public schools can do the same things as KIPP if they are willing to pay for it. I agree with the person who said that KIPP is cheapening the profession. They pay their teachers a smaller hourly wage to work a 60 hour week (and often even more).

Montgomery County did many of the things that KIPP does at one of their elementary schools several years ago. It was the poorest school in the county with about 90% FARMS and less than 1% white students. They were in danger of state takeover. MCPS lengthened the school year and the school day and gave the teachers the choice of staying paying them their regular per diem or hourly rate of pay for the additional time. They added tutoring and lowered class sizes. The test scores at that school rose more than any other school in the county.

Make no mistake--this was a costly thing to do. Fortunately this took place when the economy was strong otherwise it probably never would have happened.

There was an article about the KIPP schools in New Orleans some time back where the superintendent was quoted as saying that he didn't know where he would continue to find people who were willing to work 80 hours a week for what they are willing to pay them. Many teachers were quoted as saying that they couldn't imagine working in those schools if they had a family. Basically these schools just burn people out.

It's all about money. Period.

Posted by: musiclady | August 3, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

For Linda/RetiredTeacher----All you say is true, but what do you say to the teachers at places like KIPP who take kids who are testing in the 30s and manage to raise them to the 60s and 70s?

Posted by: jaymathews
The tests may be just as fake as the D.C. tests were, and that you did not report on.

The public charter schools cherry pick their students with the problems thrown back to the public schools.

The public charter schools have safe schools and environments where teachers can teach and students can learn. You are well aware of this, and yet have never written about this or that the comparable public schools do not have these basic standards for education of either private or public schools.

Instead of asking the opinion of readers why are you not explaining why in the past you have not written about the fake tests of D.C., or the vast difference in the environments of public schools and public charter schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

The KIPP scores cited are true at SOME schools,...
Posted by: 1bnthrdntht
Jay- The answer to your question is obvious...
Posted by: Nikki1231
To repeat what others have typed...
Posted by: edlharris
Public schools can do the same things as KIPP..
Posted by: musiclady
Stop wasting your time and effort. This is the usual of Mr. Mathews to divert attention from the fact that the D.C. tests results for years have been faked, while he and the Washington Post have been strong supporters of Ms. Rhee.

The articles of Mr. Mathews have to be reviewed simply because the comments allow the possibility of countering the distortion and dishonesty of Mr. Mathews.

The question of Mr. Mathews regarding KIPP is simply a diversion. Mr. Mathews for years has continuously claimed the importance of test results. Even a second rate reporter or columnist would see the need to explain the reasons behind test results instead of pretending that test result are the only thing that matters.

Now it is apparent that the test results of D.C. are fake, just like the past columns of Mr. Mathews.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

KIPP schools have a cray high turn over rate...students as well as teachers!
The students who do not want cannot deal with the long hours and rote memorization go back to public school!

Check it out.

KIPP schools are testing boot camps, that is all.
The low performing leave.

Please, Jay, stop the mindless boosterism of these corporate institutions.

Posted by: countbio | August 3, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Blah, Blah, Blah! Another self serving worthless article. Time to retire, Jay. I'd much rather read the "mildly mysterious G F Blandenburg."

Posted by: lacy41 | August 3, 2010 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Bye, Bye, Jay!

Posted by: lacy41 | August 3, 2010 10:20 PM | Report abuse

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