Real Improvement or Student “Creaming” in DC?

What exactly is happening with K-12 transformation in our nation’s capital?  Last week, DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that reading and math scores in the District improved for the second year in a row, with nearly half of DC’s elementary students scoring proficiency or better on the standardized test.  Two years ago, just more than a third of such students were posting such scores, allowing one to clearly proclaim that the past two years have resulted in test scores on the rise.

Buried under the test scores lede was that fewer DC schools made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, this year.  Just 27 percent of DCPS schools made AYP, compared with 31 percent last year.  And that is after Rhee closed 15 of the poorest-performing schools in the first place.
So how do scores go up, but AYP declines?  Rhee herself provided us insight into how DCPS can improve yet do a poorer overall job.  By teaching testing strategies, targeting “low-hanging” fruit students who could make one-year gains, and conducting that dreaded “teaching to the test,” DC schools were able to focus on the immediate gains.  And before one gets too critical of Eduflack’s choice of words, look at Rhee’s own word choice here.  “Low-hanging fruit” is her description for DCPS’ new targeted approach to learning.
Let me be very clear here.  I want to see DCPS and Michelle Rhee succeed.  For too many years, for too many generations of students, DCPS has failed the people of Washington, DC.  The hearty embrace of the status quo has not worked in DC.  Increasing per-pupil expenditures, yet spending on failed programs, has not worked.  Focusing on the inputs, while trying to divert attention from the outcomes, has not worked.  Denying students most in need access to the schools, teachers, materials, instruction, and attention they need has not worked.
Without question, DCPS needed a revolution.  It needed a new way of thinking, a new way of acting, and new way of measuring success.  It needed a way to harness all of its educational experiments — charters, vouchers, TFA, NLNS, and everything in between — to determine what works and what doesn’t.  And it needed a new sheriff who was beholden to no one but the students she was trying to serve.
In donning the badge, the new DCPS sheriff has been granted powers and authority that previous superintendents simply have not received.  She’s acted quickly, shutting down failing schools, removing failing principals, and seeking to do the same to struggling teachers.  She added a new “return on investment” approach to public education, calling everyone’s attention to the bottom line — results.  And she has done so successfully.
But in cherry picking that “low-hanging fruit,” Rhee has forgotten her responsibility to all of the students of the District.  Increasing test scores is important, yes, but at what cost?  Do we sacrifice real learning to hit the magic number on one test administered each winter?  Do we sacrifice the majority of students to focus raising scores for the one quartile most likely to show improvement based on statistical models?  Is the school day for learning or test prep?  Does an increased score for some on the DC-CAS substitute for improved high school graduation rates and for the acquisition of the knowledge and skills all DC students will need to succeed?  What about those teachers who are not teaching the “chosen group” of students who get the added push to improve?  Are they to be held responsible because they drew a classroom that didn’t make the cut for the added resources and attention?  Instead of making a high-quality public education a right for every DC student, have we really reached the point where it is acceptable to leave significant segments of the student population behind because it is too hard to improve their scores on the standardized tests?
Yes, all of this may be a bit of an overreaction.  DCPS should be proud that it has raised scores for the second year in a row (personally, I expected a small slippage in the numbers this year, the result of year two weariness and the ongoing battle between Rhee and the teachers union).  But we should be troubled that fewer schools are hitting AYP, particularly after already closing the worst of the bunch.  In a city of haves and have nots, we run a real danger of building a class system in the public schools, where some students are on the path to potential, and others are simply just running out the clock.
Such problems are compounded with Mayor Fenty’s decision to cut funding for the independent assessor who was to evaluate the success of Fenty and Rhee’s transformation of DCPS.  With so many changes, reforms, and innovations underway, with so many dollars being spent and additional dollars potentially coming in, with scores rising yet few knowing exactly what to attribute the increases to, an independent assessment is exactly what the DC Public Schools needs.  We need an impartial third party to come in and determine what is working and what isn’t.  We need a review of policies and procedures.  And we need a true vetting of the data to ensuring that such gains are real and sustaining, and aren’t simply a spinning of the numbers or a fancy card trick that can’t be replicated or sustained with all of DC’s young people.
For the sake of all of the students in all of DC’s 128 schools, let’s give Rhee the benefit of the doubt.  Student proficiency in reading and math is increasing.  The achievement gap is narrowing.  The reforms are taking hold and having effect.  And even those efforts targeting “low-hanging fruit” are nothing more than phase one of an effort to do the same for all students, better preparing all for the rigors of more rigorous and comprehensive assessments down the road.  These are the first steps in a true revolution to improve the quality, access, and impact of education for all DC students.  Now we just need to make sure they continue to move onward and upward for years three, four, five, and beyond.
Yes, let’s trust Rhee.  But let’s do so with independent reviewers scrutinizing what’s happening under the DCPS hood.  Trust … but verify, if you will.

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