- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

What's all the celebrating about? If Ara Dozier, my seventh-grade social studies teacher and the terror of rowdy students at Carver Junior High School, had seen the test scores for D.C. Public Schools students released last week, she would have accused the administration of trying to squeeze an A grade out of an obvious D.

No doubt, Miss Dozier would have given Arlene Ackerman credit for superior spin control. The superintendent, whose heart is in San Francisco, focused everyone on improvements in the below-basic numbers instead of the percentage of students whose test scores indicate students are proficient in reading and mathematics. Which, after all, is the real barometer of an educational institution's achievement.

The media never informed the public that only 28 percent of sixth-graders taking the SAT-9 test; 27 percent of eighth-graders; and 10 percent of 11th-graders scored at proficiency level in reading this year. The numbers were worse for math: 23 percent for sixth-graders and 12 percent for eighth-graders. And, for the second straight year, only 8 percent of 11th-graders scored at the proficient level.

The press also failed to disclose that the number of students in sixth grade scoring at basic reading level actually went down by one percentage point, according to documents released by the school system. The numbers for eighth- and 11th-graders remained unchanged from 1999. And, the media mentioned only parenthetically that 48 percent of the 11th-graders in city public schools scored below basic on the reading portion; a whopping 75 percent scored below basic on the math section.

The cork-popping, backslapping and smiling taking place in certain quarters of the District remind me of those early days when New Orleans Saints fans would celebrate because their team didn't get beaten as badly as sportscasters had predicted. I remember feeling like the only sane person in the insanity ward, wondering all the while why my dose of delusional euphoria hadn't kicked in.

Well, here's a response to the Ackerman Kool-Aid drinkers: I am not one of the "perfect people" the ones being raked across the coals by the superintendent's supporters because they live west of Rock Creek Park and are audacious enough to expect excellence from a system that received this year nearly half a billion taxpayer dollars. I have never brought home a $100,000 salary in my life so I cannot be considered one of the "haves" that Joyce Ladner, writing in The Washington Post, said needs "to understand and empathize with the desperation the economically disadvantaged feel when programs that bring hope to their children go up in smoke." Currently a fellow with the Brookings Institution, Ms. Ladner, as a former control board member was responsible, in part, during her tenure for the insignificant changes in education everyone is saluting.

The "inequity" that people rage against is the general consequence of capitalism, which makes it possible for one set of parents to fork over an additional $250 a year per child in school fees to offset budget cuts that reduce arts and specialized reading instruction, while another, poorer set, must accept the decreased offerings. Even with these "injustices," the "haves" certainly care about the "have-nots." What's more, though it may be a well-kept secret, some people east of the park are just as wealthy as their western counterparts. (For convenience, class-ism frequently wears the mask of racism).

No one black or white, rich or poor should be satisfied with the test scores released last week. And the only people who might consider them cause for celebration are some of the same folks who won't admit the decades of harm perpetrated against poor people by Marion Barry. They are the same people who thought Valerie Holt should have retained her job as chief financial officer simply because she was black. They are the same people who scream and shout because Mayor Anthony Williams' administration is enforcing the law against slum landlords. In other words, these are the people who welcome mediocrity as a partner.

There are several frightening conclusions to be gleaned from the scores: In one year, thousands of District students are likely to graduate from high school ill-prepared for anything but the lowest paying jobs in the market. Others may be admitted to college only to spend their first and second years in remedial programs, overburdening schools like the University of the District of Columbia and Montgomery Community College. The pattern of children performing worse the longer they stay in city schools has not been arrested or reversed. In 1996, when the financial control board swooped down and snatched operation of public schools away from the elected D.C. Board of Education, that was one of the most compelling reasons it gave for its unprecedented action. And yet, after more than three years under control board authority, with a superintendent that received in the past year a salary increase and a $25,000 bonus, nothing has changed. The journey from sixth grade to graduation is a downward slide for students in District public schools.

For these reasons, instead of smiling and waiting for congratulations, we all should hang our heads in shame.

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