Friday, June 20, 2003

The superintendent of D.C. public schools yesterday said he had found some good news in a new national report that ranks D.C. schoolchildren as the country’s worst readers and only slightly better than some non-English-speaking children in the U.S. territories.

Superintendent Paul L. Vance said the achievement gap between white, black and Hispanic students has narrowed.

“We have increased since 1998 at the fourth-grade level in reading, by 12 points … and at the eighth-grade level [by four points],” Mr. Vance said in a statement. “Still, we are not satisfied with this rate of progress. We must and will aggressively move forward to do much more.”

The National Assessment of Educational Process (NAEP) on Thursday released “The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2000,” which shows that fourth- and eighth-graders have improved slightly in reading over the past few years. But the country’s high school seniors are worse readers than 12th-graders in 1998.

D.C. public schoolchildren in all grades are falling behind their peers in other jurisdictions, even though the District spent $9,650 per pupil in 2001 — the second-highest per-pupil expenditure among the states, according to the NAEP report. Only New Jersey spent more per student — $10,145.

Meanwhile, the average salary for a D.C. teacher was $48,651 in 2001 — among the highest in the nation, according to the NAEP report. The District’s 16-to-1 student-teacher ratio was about the same as that of the states. Mr. Vance is paid $175,000 a year

D.C. school officials yesterday declined to provide current per-pupil expenditure, average salary and student-teacher ratio information.

“We absolutely cannot dismiss this,” Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the D.C. school board, said of the study. “We can explain it, but we can’t dismiss it. Our kids are just as capable of learning to read as any others — if we teach them well and treat them right.”

Mrs. Cafritz said it was “absolutely inexcusable” that D.C. children had such a high illiteracy rate. “We have spent millions, but it hasn’t changed in years.”

But board member Julie Mikuta said she was not surprised by the report’s findings.

“If you look at test scores, they haven’t gone up dramatically. No one is serving these kids well,” Ms. Mikuta said.

She said her committee, which focuses on teaching and learning, has been drafting plans to improve literacy. The plans include creating an office devoted to literacy, providing schools with literacy coaches, improving teacher training and allowing every student 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading each day.

“Overall, this is very timely for us,” Ms. Mikuta said, noting that her panel will hold the city’s third literacy forum on Monday. “All children can read on grade level. That should be expected and a reality. We have to focus on getting there. And we need a literacy campaign in which everyone in the community is involved.”

In his statement, Mr. Vance noted that the District’s reading gap between black students and white students narrowed by 12 points, and the gap between Hispanic students and white students by 19 points. Those results were ranked as the third- and second-best in their categories, respectively, among the states in the NAEP report.

School officials pledged to have all D.C. third-graders reading on grade level by 2006.

The NAEP report shows that more than two-thirds of the District’s fourth-graders and more than half of its eighth-graders had “below basic” reading ability.

“Below basic” means the children could not demonstrate an understanding of what they read.

Only 10 percent of D.C. fourth- and eighth-graders last year were “at or above proficient” reading ability — the same percentage of fourth-graders as 10 years ago, but 2 percentage points fewer eighth-graders than in 1992.

To be proficient, students must “demonstrate an overall understanding of text, providing inferential as well as literal information.” They must score at least 238 on the fourth-grade NAEP test and at least 281 on the eighth-grade test. The average scores for D.C. students were 191 for fourth grade and 240 for eighth grade.

Compared with average reading scores of public school students throughout the country, D.C. fourth-graders scored 21 points below average. Eighth-graders scored 18 points below average.

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