- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

The past couple of weeks have been hard on Superintendent Paul Vance. First came the sad but expected news that students performed poorly on two standardized exams — the 2002 National Assessment of Education Progress reading exam and the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-9). Last Sunday, the superintendent tried to downplay — indeed he criticized — the NAEP results, saying, among other things, that NAEP unfairly compares the District to states. Then, on Tuesday, President Bush used the backdrop of a charter school — over which the superintendent holds no authority, fortunately — to explain why poor D.C. students deserve vouchers. That the city’s mayor, school board president and the lawmaker chiefly responsible for educational matters were in attendance as voucher supporters stands as testament to remarks the superintendent himself made about the disappointing performance of D.C. Public Schools.

First, the NAEP scores. Sixty-nine percent of D.C. fourth-graders scored below basic on the NAEP, compared to 39 percent nationwide. Among black D.C. students (and the D.C. public school system is overwhelmingly black), 72 percent scored below basic. All told, D.C. Public Schools scored lower than all 50 states.

While School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz rightly characterized that illiteracy rate as “absolutely inexcusable,” Mr. Vance made excuses. In his June 29 opinion piece in The Washington Post, Mr. Vance called the NAEP assessment “unfair.” The unfairness relates to the fact that states “offset low scores from some areas with scores from traditionally higher-performing areas, such as suburbs.”

Well, no, the District is not a state. It’s fair, though, in this instance, to say that Mr. Vance has read the Eleanor Holmes Norton Book of Liberal Propaganda, which advises that, when all else fails, cry no taxation without representation. The fact of the matter is that D.C. taxpayers hand over an awful lot of money to Mr. Vance and his staff. According to census statistics released this spring, the District’s per-pupil spending, including capital outlays, was $15,122 — compared to the national average of $8,521.

Mr. Vance also took issue with achievement gaps. “The gap in fourth-grade reading between African American and white students was reduced,” he said, “by 12 points, while the gap between Hispanic and white students was reduced by 19 points.” What Mr. Vance did not tell readers of The Post is that, while the national gap between white and black and white fourth-graders stands at only 29 points, the gap in the District is far more pronounced, standing at 60 points. So much for bridging that divide.

The superintendent went on to say that, since the NAEP is but one “indicator of student achievement,” the city will continue to rigorously follow the student achievement goals set out in its own plan for school reform.” Our rub here is that the District’s plan — i.e. Paul Vance’s plan — isn’t working, even when measured not by the NAEP but by the SAT-9. According to Mr. Vance’s own critique of that exam’s recent scores, middle, junior and senior high schools continue to lag behind their regional and national counterparts, with scores for a number of those schools either unchanged or slipping.

Surely, by now, Mr. Vance and his staff are familiar with the bluntness with which Mr. Bush spoke on Tuesday, when he talked about “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And they have probably read by now Mr. Bush’s comments about D.C. schools. “There are some great schools in the District,” the president said, “and there are some lousy schools in the District.” How right he is.

Mr. Vance knows the great schools from the lousy ones. Problem is, Mr. Vance doesn’t give the great ones credit for helping to “offset low scores” by the lousy ones and his reform “plan” isn’t helping the lousy schools either. As charter schools continue to flourish and vouchers become available, Mr. Vance will have less “lousy” schools to worry about.

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