Staff Editorial: As test scores slowly improve, achievement gap remains

Antwan Wilson became the D.C. schools chancellor in 2017. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2017)

In recent years, it’s become a familiar story whenever the District releases another year’s standardized test scores: Overall performance has seen a modest but steady improvement, but far too many students perform poorly and a substantial achievement gap remains.

Last Thursday, the city announced scores on the 2016-17 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams, best known by its initials of PARCC. In these tests, 27 percent of students in the D.C. Public Schools system and public charter schools met or exceeded expectations in math and 31 percent reached that level in English language arts. Those otherwise disappointing figures are increases of 2 and 4 percentage points compared to 2016 levels.

We’re certainly glad to see consistent signs of continued growth. But staggering numbers of our local students remain woefully behind.

On the tests’ five-point scale, Level 5 students “exceeded expectations,” Level 4 “met expectations,” Level 3 “approached expectations,” Level 2 “partially met expectations” and Level 1 “did not yet meet expectations.” Fully a quarter of D.C. students achieved the lowest level in English, and nearly as many (21 percent) are as abysmally behind in math. And in high school math, just 13 percent of students met or exceeded expectations. Here, too, there were improvements — the pace just remains inexorably slow considering the District’s low starting point.

Split demographically, there’s also a familiar pattern. In the math exams, 75.5 percent of white students met or exceeded expectations, and 82 percent reached that level in English language arts. For Latino students, those figures fall to just 26 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively; black students were at 18.6 percent and 22 percent, respectively. Every racial demographic saw scores improve, but much more is needed.

New D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson has listed achievement gaps as one of his top priorities to address. We think that’s appropriate given this steep disparity. We’d caution, though, that the city must not neglect its successful students and schools. Good must become great, and great must remain great — for the benefit of students and also to protect against families moving away to escape D.C. schools. That requires adequate resources, even while bolstering programs for at-risk students.

We’d like to raise two other caveats. First, schools must preserve the arts, history, physical education and other disciplines that are essential to a well-rounded pupil — even if they’re not part of standardized tests.

Secondly, as we noted last year, the 2015-16 exams were beset by flawed implementation. There were reports of numerous students being tested on the wrong material, and of students blowing off their PARCC tests in order to focus on Advanced Placement and SAT exams. The evident result was steep drop-offs at the high-performing Wilson High School and School Without Walls. These issues make it difficult to make a precise year-to-year comparison of the District’s test scores.