# Michael Holzman

# Student Achievement in the District of Columbia Public Schools

Student Achievement in the District of Columbia Public Schools

We now have the results of the first National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2019. The assessments took place as usual at grades 4, 8 and 12. The grade 8 Reading and Mathematics assessments are particularly crucial. Success, “Proficiency,” flags grade 8 students as those on the high road to graduation, college, and an economically comfortable adult life. Failure, scores “below Basic,” indicate that other students are on the low road. They likely will have difficulty graduating from high school; are unlikely to qualify for admission to college; will face a lifetime of minimal wage work or chronic unemployment, will not be well equipped for constructive participation in public life.

NAEP provides results for a variety of categories of the student population. Among those categories are certain racial and ethnic groups, chiefly “White,” “Black,” “Hispanic,” and “Asian/Pacific Islander.” Another category is an approximation of family economic status: eligibility for the National School Lunch Program. A third is parental education attainment.

The racial/ethnic categories are problematic: each of them is composed of highly varied racial, ethnic, linguistic and national origin groups. “Black” students can be the descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States before the Civil War or those whose families recently emigrated from the Islands or members of families who are recent immigrants from Africa itself. “Hispanic” students can be first or second generation emigrants to this country (or whose families had settled here in places before those regions were absorbed by the United States) or who are descended from earlier emigrants from highly developed or from lesser developed countries. “Asian/Pacific Islander” students may be of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Filipino, Hawaiian and many other groups. And “White” students can be of equally disparate national origins and generations in this country. Nonetheless, as NAEP does not provide data more finely divided than the major categories, we must work with those.

Student achievement at grade 8 is a particularly important educational indicator. Eighth grade is in many ways a “gateway” to further education. And students who have not been taught basic skills in grade 8 may have difficulty acquiring them later. NAEP defines the “Basic” level for Grade 8 Reading in this way:

When Reading informational texts such as exposition and argumentation, eighth-grade students performing at the NAEP Basic level can likely:

• determine the meaning of words using context from one section of the text

• locate and use explicit details to answer specific questions and make simple inferences about the text

• determine the main idea or purpose of the text using explicit features from the text

• demonstrate a general understanding of text features or graphics

• demonstrate a general understanding of the concepts in the text but can support their understanding using only limited information from the text

• formulate an opinion about a claim or argument and support this opinion using only limited information from the text, etc.

We might therefore assume that students in Grade 8 who are found to be reading at the NAEP “below Basic” level are not likely to be able to do these things. In other words, it is unlikely that they are able to make much use of written materials in school, or later at work, or in everyday and public life.

The District of Columbia Public Schools enrolls approximately 50,000 students, approximately 3,000 are in grade 8. Of those, 44 students are Asian or Pacific Islanders, 650 are categorized as Hispanic, 1,900 as Black and 360 as White. At grade 8, only a quarter, 690 (23%), of students in the Washington, DC, public schools read at the level expected for good progress by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Proficient and Advanced). Nearly twice as many, close to half, 1,320, have not been taught to read well enough to meaningfully use that skill in school or later life. (NAEP found in this 2022 assessment that the remaining third of the students had been taught to read only at the Basic level.)

NAEP uses eligibility for the National School Lunch Program as a proxy for household income. Those eligible for the Program have incomes less than $51,000 for a family of four, approximately twice the national poverty level. There is a dramatic difference in the reading skills of students in the District between those from families above and below this economic divide. In the District of Columbia more than half of those below the divide, eligible for the National School Lunch Program, have reading skills below the Basic level (54%), yet only 16% of those students from better off households have not been taught by the District’s schools to read at least at the Basic level and, coincidentally, 54% of these have reached Proficient or Advanced levels of reading skills. (The percentage of students from more prosperous families at the Advanced category is a remarkable 13%, three times the national percentage for all students in grade 8, as compared to just 1% of those in the District’s schools who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program.)

Students in grade 8 in the Washington, DC, schools whose households are economically secure are four times as likely to have been taught to read well than those from impoverished households. Income is generally associated with educational achievement. DCPS students whose parents graduated from college are three times as likely to have been taught to read well as those whose parents only graduated from high school.

Student reading achievement at grade 8 is even more dramatically differentiated in the Washington schools by race and ethnicity than by family income and parental education levels. White students are nearly five times as likely to reach the Proficient and Advanced categories as Black and Hispanic students, half of whom are at the below Basic level, being unable to usefully apply the reading skills in school and everyday life. 19% of the District’s White students are taught to read at the Advanced level, but only 1% of Black and Hispanic students are brought to that level by the District’s schools.

When we combine the racial/ethnic measures with those for eligibility for the National School Lunch Program among grade 8 students in the District of Columbia Schools we find that there is no NAEP data in the eligible category for White student and no data for the ineligible category for Hispanic students. Presumably too few White students are eligible for the National School Lunch Program and too few are ineligible among Hispanic students. Among the District’s Black and Hispanic students eligible for the Program, more than half (55%) were found by NAEP to read only at the below Basic level and none at all at the Advanced level. Just 8% of White students from the more prosperous District households are in the below Basic category and 20% are in the Advanced category, compared to 29% of Black students ineligible for the National School Lunch Program at the below Basic level, and 5% of those Black students ineligible for the National School Lunch Program in the Advanced category. Among households with incomes above the level required for the National School Lunch Program twice the percentage of White students as Black students are taught by the District’s schools to read at least Proficiently.

The failure of the District to teach its students basic skills needed for success in school and beyond is even more evident from the NAEP Mathematics assessment. According to the NAEP, students performing at the NAEP Mathematics Basic achievement level in grade 8 can likely

• simplify expressions involving integers

• use operations to solve real-world problems involving integers or fractions

• use proportional relationships to find equivalent ratios and create fractions and fractional relationships, with or without models

• demonstrate understanding of scientific notation, etc.

We might therefore assume that students at the NAEP “below Basic” level in Grade 8 Mathematics are not likely to be able to do these things. In other words, it is unlikely that they are able to use Mathematics beyond simple arithmetic. More than half, 58%, of all grade 8 students in the schools of the nation’s capital do not have even those basic mathematics skills. Only 16% reached Proficiency. Just shy of three-quarters, 72%, of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program were unable to solve Basic grade-level mathematics problems, while half of those from more well-off households reached Proficiency. An impressive (astonishing?) 75% of White students in grade 8 reached Proficiency, compared to 5% of Black and 10% of Hispanic students. 70% of Black students, 1,330, were not taught this fundamental skill even to the Basic level.

The national decline in skills during the pandemic was predictable and tragic. However, in the schools of the nation’s capital it was barely noticeable for White students. The percentage reaching Proficiency in grade 8 Mathematics declined from 76% in 2019 to 75% in 2022: in effect, no change. For Black students, the percentage reaching Proficiency fell by more than half, from 12% to 5%. The change for Hispanic students was similar, from 20% Proficient and Advanced in 2019 to 10% in 2022.

The District of Columbia Public Schools expenditure per student, more than $20,000 annually, is among the highest in the country, below the State of New York, but higher than others and comparable, for example, to that of the State of New Jersey. Nationally, students reach Proficiency on the grade 8 NAEP 2022 Mathematics assessment 27% of the time. In New Jersey they did so 34% of the time. Just 16% of the DCPS students were brought to Proficiency and 58% were not brought even to the Basic level.

What is the purpose of the District of Columbia Public Schools? If it is to educate White students alone, it does this well, one might say very well. However, it is functionally segregated, providing an outstanding education to the tenth of its students who are White and leaving most of its Black and Hispanic students, for all intents and purposes, uneducated. Such is the nature of the public school system of the nation’s capital.

Michael Holzman

November 25, 2022