While students in other large urban school districts have made significant progress on standardized reading and math tests in recent years, achievement gaps between black and white students remain stubbornly high, with the most lopsided disparities of all coming in the nation's capital.
According to a new report released Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics, the District has the biggest black-white and Hispanic-white gaps in the country by every measure the study made.
For example, there is a 73-point gulf between the District's white and black eighth-graders on mathematics exams — more than double both the national average gap (31 points) and the 34-point disparity in large city school districts, defined as those with populations greater than 250,000.
The study measured fourth- and eighth-graders' scores on the math and reading sections of standardized tests.
But it isn't all bad news for D.C. schools. Despite the racial gaps, the city's overall scores are up, according to the survey. Reading scores among fourth-graders are up 10 points compared with 2002. Fourth-graders math scores jumped 17 points over the same time, the report shows. The exception is eighth-grade reading, where scores declined by two points since 2003.
"The most recent data reinforces our decision to aggressively implement a rigorous, new curriculum that is heavily focused on reading and literacy," D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said in a statement, adding that officials hope the District's revamped curriculum will boost eighth-grade reading schools in the coming years.
She acknowledged, however, that the racial achievement gaps remain a serious concern that must be addressed. The gulfs are especially striking when compared with other large, metropolitan districts.
The District's 73-point black-white gap in eight-grade math dwarfs that of the second-worst systems — the 47-point gaps in Atlanta and Austin, Texas. On eighth-grade reading tests, the District's 58-point gap between white and Hispanic students is by far the highest in the nation. Boston comes in second, with a 36-point gap. The national average is 21 points, according to the NCES, an arm of the federal Education Department.
For some, the racial divides overshadow the significant progress made by city school districts, which typically serve greater numbers of minority students, students with disabilities and children from low-income families, and which also sometimes struggle to attract the same high-quality teachers found in more affluent schools.
"Too often, we celebrate movement [on test scores] and forget that the movement has to be for all" students, said Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, at a press conference Wednesday morning, at which the report was unveiled.
"We have so much room to make up," he said. "We want to know what's working and what isn't working. We are not interested in perpetuating these inequities."
Mr. Alonso's Baltimore schools have some of the smallest achievement differences, its 21-point gap between white and black fourth-grade reading scores being tied with Cleveland for the lowest among the 21 cities measured in the survey.
"We have focused on math tremendously," Mr. Alonso said. "But reading takes a little more time, we think. [Improvement in] reading takes a change in the culture. It's about vocabulary building; it's about critical thinking. We're going to have to show that we're ready for the kind of transformation that we're going to need in this city, and that frankly the entire country is going to need."
While conceding there is much work to be done, Mr. Alonso highlighted progress in some of the nation's largest school systems. Since 2002, for example, Atlanta schools have seen an 10-point uptick in the number of eighth-grade students labeled "proficient" in reading, based on NCES' 500-point scale.
Over the same time period, there has been a 21-point decline in students considered "below basic," the lowest categorization, which indicates a less-than-average grasp of the subject matter.
Los Angeles schools saw similar improvements, with a 12-point drop in the "below basic" category, accompanied by a six-point jump in the number of proficient students.
In the past nine years, the District has seen a four-point climb in the number of eighth-graders considered proficient in reading, while there has been no statistically significant change in the percentage of students designated as "below basic" in comprehension.
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