- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

Just how bad have D.C. public schools become? Consider the results from the latest study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is widely regarded as “the nation’s report card.” In a study of the math and reading skills of fourth- and eighth-grade students in 10 urban public-school districts, D.C. students finished dead last in three of the four categories (fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade math).

In both fourth-grade categories, D.C. students performed well below their urban-district peers. In reading, a stunning 69 percent of D.C. fourth-grade students scored below the basic level. That means they failed to attain even a “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills.” Compared to 37 percent of large central city public-school fourth-graders who performed below the basic level in math, fully 64 percent of District students failed to meet this minimal achievement level. (Even worse, 71 percent of D.C. eighth-graders fell below the basic level in math.)

The only category in which District students did not finish dead last among the 10 urban districts was eighth-grade reading. Here, they finished ninth, surpassing only Los Angeles students. Yet even this tiny achievement was tainted by the fact that one-third of Los Angeles eighth-graders were classified as “limited-English-proficient” (LEP) students, compared to 5 percent in the District.

Compared to 20 percent of large central city public school fourth-graders who read at or above the proficient level, only 11 percent of D.C. fourth-graders did so. And while 70 percent of the white fourth-graders in the District met or exceeded the proficient standard, only 7 percent of black students did. Nowhere else in the nation was the racial achievement gap so large. No wonder Education Secretary Rod Paige described the District’s achievement gap as “truly worrisome” and “abysmal.”

“Abysmal” is also how the overall testing results of D.C. students were recently described in a report by the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), which further characterized the District’s instructional programs as “incoherent.” In a recentessayinThe Washington Post, Michael Casserly, CGCS executive director, assessed how the dysfunctional D.C. public school system measured up against large urban school districts whose students were making “significant gains” in their reading skills. Compared to what these advancing districts were doing, Mr. Casserly observed: “The D.C. schools do just the opposite. The school district’s leadership has not articulated a clear direction for improving academic performance. It has no districtwide achievement goals….No one is held accountable for results except principals — in part — and they receive little instructional training. The system lacks a coherent curriculum.” Mr. Casserly’s roll call of dysfunction continued. Suffice to say, nothing will likely change for the better — change for the worse is, of course, a distinct possibility under current conditions — until the public schools are made to face real competition. To achieve this, a voucher plan to benefit D.C. students must be implemented as soon as possible.

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