- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

For years, apologists for the disgraceful public schools in the District have complained that it is unfair to compare the academic performance of the central-city students of the District with the average performance of students across the nation. They argue that national and statewide samples include large segments of suburban students whose socioeconomic status is generally significantly higher than that of students in central cities, making state and national comparisons with D.C. inherently flawed. The argument had a bait-and-switch quality to it: Complaining about any relative comparisons was much easier than explaining the deplorable absolute levels of performance by D.C. public school students. Now those apologists have some real explaining to do.

Last year, for the reading and writing exams administered to fourth- and eighth-graders, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) developed a Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) project. The project generated comparable data for six urban school districts (the District, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Houston and Los Angeles). D.C. schools performed abysmally.

* While 49 percent of all central-city public-school students in the fourth grade read below the basic level, 69 percent of D.C. fourth-graders failed to meet that minimal standard. Seventy-four percent of D.C. male fourth-graders and 72 percent of D.C. black students, who comprised 88 percent of the District’s fourth-graders, read below the basic level. According to NAEP standards, that means that seven out of 10 D.C. fourth-grade students could not “make relatively obvious connections between the text and their own experiences.” The average fourth-grade score in the District was 191, compared to a central-city average of 208, which also happened to be the minimally acceptable score for the basic level.

* Among TUDA cities, D.C. fourth-graders tied for last with their Los Angeles counterparts. But 72 percent of the L.A. students were from Hispanic families (compared to 7 percent in the District) where English may not be the primary language.

m D.C. eighth-grade students scored 240, or 14 points below the central-city average reading score (and 23 points below the national average). Compared to the 36 percent of eighth-graders who scored below the basic reading level, 52 percent of District eighth-graders failed to reach that level. D.C. eighth-graders performed marginally above their counterparts in Los Angeles and Atlanta and significantly below Houston and Chicago students.

m On the writing test, the average D.C. fourth-grade score of 135 was dead last, 12 points below the central-city average. District eighth-graders tied L.A. students for last place with a score of 128, 15 points below the central-city average. Thirty-four percent of District eighth-graders performed below basic on the writing test, significantly higher than the 27 percent of D.C. fourth-graders who performed below basic and the 23 percent of central-city eighth-graders below that level.

Of course, none of this distressing evidence deterred the apologists. William Cartij, the District’s assistant superintendent for assessment and (no kidding) education accountability, said: “I think somehow the perception is that D.C. is doing a lot worse than other cities. And I think this shows that is not the case.” Presumably he said that with a straight face.

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