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At a breakfast meeting convened by Mayor Muriel Bowser Tuesday, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson acknowledged that many of the District’s high-school students simply aren’t prepared for college. “It’s not a pretty moment for us, but it’s an honest moment for us and we’re not afraid to confront that,” Henderson explained.
The chancellor, who has been on the job for five years, was referring to the release of scores from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—a series of tests administered for the first time in D.C. this year that students mostly took online. According to DCPS, only 12 and 27 percent of high-schoolers were judged to be “proficient and on track for college and career” in geometry and English II, respectively; this means they scored a four or five out of the assessments’ five-point scale. But a look at data furnished by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (which reported slightly different stats that include charter schools) shows that black and Hispanic students underperformed their white peers by big margins.
In plain language, the District’s white public high-school students were almost four times more likely than black and Hispanic ones to receive scores deemed proficient in English, and roughly nine times more likely than those groups to receive proficient scores in math.
Such a disparity reflects what’s known in education circles as the achievement gap: the pattern that historically disadvantaged populations have, broadly speaking, ranked lower on standardized measures of academic success than have white students. While a variety of factors contribute to that gap—including students’ home lives, economic differences, and the availability of institutional resources—it appears plainly evident throughout D.C.
Tenth-graders at three high schools in the District—Ballou, Roosevelt, and Woodson—recorded zero percent proficiency in English II and geometry, meaning none of their students scored at least a four on the PARCC exams. Those at eight schools demonstrated zero percent achievement in geometry. These schools fall into every ward except 1 and 2.
City Desk mapped the locations of the schools deemed not proficient for your reference. Red indicates zero scores of 4 or 5 in both English and math, and blue the same in math.
There are a few caveats worth keeping in mind. First, the PARCC tests score students on a scale, so even if none at certain schools got a four or five, they may have gotten threes and twos (defined as “approached expectations” and “partially met expectations” in turn). Second—as has been noted by Henderson and others—this is the first academic year in which District students took the PARCC; they and teachers are still adapting to the tests.
“D.C. Public Schools used the DC-CAS tests to measures student performance for the past seven years, and DCPS students across the city consistently showed progress on this assessment,” Henderson said in a statement. “This year’s [PARCC] test serves as an important baseline from which we will work to help prepare all students.”
A caveat to that first caveat, though: across all, black, and Hispanic pupils, most scored a one (“did not yet meet expectations”) in English II, at 37, 41, and 35 percent; in math, the majority of tenth-graders across those categories scored a two—at 45, 50, and 45 percent.
“Historically, schools east of the river have scored lower on standardized tests,” explains Karen Williams, vice president and Ward 7 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. “So I’m not surprised that we scored low on the new PARCC exam, because the emphasis has been on the building of new schools and not necessarily on improving the quality of education that occurs inside those buildings.” She adds that many parents in Ward 7 send their children to schools across the river, such as those in Ward 6, since they have better reputations. The PARCC tests, she says, are more difficult than the DC-CAS were (they’re not multiple choice, for one), which probably contributed to the low scores.
“Part of the problem—and I’m very much aware of it—is the lack of positive parental involvement,” Williams continues. “There are a multitude of reasons why many parents east of the river are not as successful at supporting their children’s education as those on the other side of the river. There is not one reason; there are many, many, many reasons.” Among them? The challenges that come with being a single-parent or not economically advantaged, Williams says, meaning parents can’t give time to activities like fundraising.
Faith Gibson Hubbard, SBOE’s chief student advocate, who was appointed this May, says many DCPS students and parents lack a forum where they can voice their needs and concerns. She recalls a time she canvassed in Congress Heights, when a young man told her he’d created a wish list for his school but didn’t want to show it to her. “‘I’ve shared it with a lot of people and they’ve done nothing, so why would I share it with you,’ he said,” Hubbard remembers. “That is a very common theme in some D.C. public schools.”
“Many of the families I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with are very frustrated,” she adds. “They’ve lived in their neighborhoods for generation after generation, and their frustration has mounted. It’s only amplified because they’re thinking of the past as well.”
Update 6:15 p.m.: A spokesperson for DCPS clarified that DCPS’ and OSSE’s reported PARCC data differs because OSSE’s includes the District’s charter schools. She also provided a statement on behalf of DCPS: “We’re on the right track. While these numbers are sobering, we feel like it’s critical to have honest conversations with our families. We are not going for mediocrity; we’re going for college and career ready [students].”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery. Screenshots via DCPS and OSSE