DC NAEP Scores-Where is the Death Spiral?


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

No one seems to be taking much note of it, but some Washington DC has some very favorable trends in their NAEP scores.

To be sure, the District’s scores still reflect widespread academic failure on an inexcusable level for a district blowing through $20k per child per year. The positive trend predates Michelle Rhee’s tenure, which is good, as I think we are likely to see further (badly needed) progress. It is still too early to judge whether Rhee will accelerate this rate of progress, but I’d be willing to bet she will.

If you go to the NAEP page for DC and look at the 4th grade reading scores, you will find that the catastrophically low score of 188 in 1992 fell to an even more pathetic 179 in 1994.   That’s almost a grade level drop from an already low base. A score of 179 makes me wonder what the score would be if we simply gave every child in DC a library card and hoped for the best. Mind you, that wouldn’t work well either, but it couldn’t work that much worse than DCPS circa 1994. Since 1994, however, scores have climbed 23 points. The percentage scoring basic or better increased from 24% in 1994 to 44% in 2009. Math improvement has also been impressive and shows the same trend- progress after the mid 1990s.

One blindingly obvious cause for the improvement: the 100 charter schools operating in the district educating over 30,000 children. DC’s charter law passed in 1996 (near the bottom of DC performance) and the opening of schools has been very strong. In 1996-7, DCPS had 78,648 students enrolled. In 2007-08 it had dropped to 58,191.

This is no doubt why DCPS spending per pupil has spiralled to such absurdly high levels. No on apparently thought that it might be appropriate to cut the budget for a district that is 20,000 fewer students, but I digress. DC’s scores still stink, but in the progress department they have clobbered all states other than Delaware and Florida.

I’m not willing to celebrate a district that spends over $20k per student per year and has 56% of 4th graders illiterate. I am however willing to celebrate progress, and DC has momentum. If they would like to accelerate that progress, parental choice policies that would be helpful would be to reverse the shameful decision of the NEA robots majority of the Democratic caucus to kill the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program merits not only renewal but a large expansion.

In addition, DC should institute a McKay Scholarship program with children with disabilities, if they would like to stop paying for the 5th homes and country club memberships of the attorneys endlessly battering DCPS on failure to provide FAPE under IDEA. Both the kids and the district budget would win big from such a program.

The enemies of parental choice have always painted the nightmare scenario of an academic death spiral for the children “left behind” in the district. Perhaps these same folks would like to explain to us now how it is that DCPS lost a quarter of their students since the mid 1990s and watched their reading scores improve by 23 points. Where is the death spiral? Oh, I mean in DCPS scores.  The death spiral for the credibility of choice opponents is impossible to miss.

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