‘Very sobering’ — DC standardized test scores reveal widening gaps

Proficiency rates in several subjects have decreased among at-risk D.C. students between 2019 and 2022, revealing a widening gap for some of the city’s most vulnerable students, according to education officials.

The District on Friday released data from citywide English language arts and math standardized tests administered to students in grades 3 through 8 and high schoolers last spring. It was the first time D.C. students took the tests since the 2018-19 school year; the city paused testing for two years during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Math proficiency decreased 10% between 2019 and 2022 for at-risk students. The English language arts proficiency rate decreased 6% between 2019 and 2022 for at-risk students.

Students are deemed “at-risk” because of their Temporary Assistance for Needed Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, homeless, overage, or Child and Family Services Agency or foster care status.

Proficiency in math dropped across all grade levels, and Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino students saw the largest drop in proficiency on English language arts tests.

The test results paint a dire picture of D.C. student progress in the aftermath of the pandemic. On Friday, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that math and reading scores fell sharply among 9-year-olds in the U.S.

School systems in Virginia saw declines in test scores when compared to pre-pandemic data as well.

“There are some widening gaps across the city, some learning loss effectively everywhere, with the most harm from the pandemic done to students who have the greatest need,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn. “These results are very sobering and underscore the urgency with which we’ve all been working for the past two years.”

In total, more than 43,000 students took the English language arts and math versions of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test. For about half of city students, it was their first time taking a standardized statewide exam, officials said.

The tests measure student performance in English language arts and math, and have five performance levels. Students who score level 4 or 5 are meeting or exceeding grade level expectations.

Other findings include:

  • Sixty-percent of students scored a level 1 or 2 on the math PARCC test, as did 48% in English language arts.
  • More than 2,200 students who were proficient in English language arts in 2019 were no longer proficient in 2022.
  • In math, more than 3,700 students who were proficient in 2019 weren’t proficient in 2022.

As the city enters what it’s calling “a recovery phase,” education officials highlighted a multiyear, $40 million investment in high-impact tutoring, which calls for at least 90 minutes per week of programming in English language arts and/or math.

Superintendent Christina Grant said more than 4,000 students currently have access to the tutoring resource.

The city, Grant said, also plans to increase the number of grants available for summer programs.

As part of a $1 billion plan to use federal stimulus money, D.C. is launching a Family Resource center for students with disabilities too.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said the city has refined its math curriculum, because “the remote learning environment did not serve well in terms of building number sense.”

The school system is reviewing how to best have educators teach reading as well.

“We have spent a lot of time with helping teachers understand the scientific nature of how young people learn to read,” Ferebee said. “We want to be based in research and best practice.”

Michelle Walker-Davis, executive director of D.C.’s Public Charter School Board, said the city’s public charter schools are also making changes such as tweaking curricula and hiring additional teachers to support special education classes, among other things.

Kihn, the deputy mayor, said the city sees the scores as “a call to action to ensure that we achieve pre-pandemic results quickly, but then move well beyond them.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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