D.C. Public Schools see large achievement gains, growing inequality

Last week was an important one for new D.C. Public Schools chancellor Antwan Wilson. The American Institutes for Research published a new report on DCPS’s progress since 2013, and the district released its new strategic plan. While the city’s charter sector has increasingly become a national model, DCPS wants to show that its latest efforts to improve have, too, been fruitful. The top-level findings of the AIR report provide the district with plenty of fodder for positive press releases, but a closer look reveals continued disappointments for D.C.’s neediest students.

First, the good news. Between 2003 and 2015, Average fourth grade NAEP scale scores rose twenty-six and twenty-seven points in English language arts and math, respectively, narrowing the gap with other large urban district schools. Eighth grade NAEP scores also improved, but did not narrow gaps compared to other urban districts. Black and Hispanic students made impressive gains on the PARCC assessment, new to D.C. in 2015, in just two years. Black students improved proficiency levels by as much as 7 percentage points in middle school ELA, while Hispanic students saw impressive results including, a large 10-percentage-point proficiency gain in elementary math. Additionally, overall graduation rates jumped 13 percentage points to 69 percent, with black students seeing an even higher bump of 19 percentage points.

Non-academic indicators also saw some improvements between 2013 and 2017. Attendance levels rose, particularly in middle and high school, though gains have slowed recently. Black students in particular increased attendance in high school, improving by an average of 7 percentage points. Minority students have also reported increased satisfaction with their schools. Eighty-one percent of black students and 89 percent of Hispanic students are now satisfied with their schools, compared with 74 percent and 84 percent respectively in 2013.

Despite all of these gains, however, DCPS has one persistent problem: inequality. The gaps between white and minority students in all measures are enormous and, in some cases, growing. Currently, the smallest achievement gap is between Hispanic and white high school students in math (the weakest performance area overall) at 41 percentage points. Despite being the smallest gap, this achievement gap grew the most between 2015 and 2017 (12 percentage points) with large gains for white students, but anemic growth for Hispanic students. The gap between white and black students also grew by 11 percentage points in this category.

Moving forward DCPS faces immense challenges, despite recent gains, if it truly wants to provide equity and excellence for District students. As the 2017 school year begins, targeting the achievement of minority students needs to be the focus on district officials at all levels.

SOURCES: Drew Atchison, Ed.D. and Laura B. Stein, M.A., “Looking Back To Move Forward: Progress And Opportunity In District Of Columbia Public Schools,” American Institutes for Research (September 2017).

Nicholas Munyan-Penney
Nicholas Munyan-Penney Development and Research Associate