DC Public Schools Test Scoring Goes Down, Is it Rhee’s Fault?

Sign spotted in front of a DC home after a few school closings were announced last year.

“Dear PoP,

I thought this article was interesting and something people would be eager to discuss.

Rhee seems to have made HUGE strides in public schools and yet she still seems to get ripped on. Reading the comments at the bottom of the article I get the distinct feeling that many of those are coming from teachers that were fired. All of that being said, I think that it could be very difficult for parents of the kids who are having so much turnover in their school’s staff.”

The brief Post article says:

“D.C. officials announced Tuesday that reading and math test scores declined in elementary schools this year, halting a two-year run of significant gains and dealing a setback to Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee as she seeks to overhaul city schools.”

However the article also says:

“Rhee called the three-year gains at the middle and high school levels — an average of 14 percentage points in reading and 17 points in math — a significant achievement.”

So how do you judge if Rhee is successful or not? Clearly this has become a major (Mayoral) campaign issue as the article also notes. Can success or failure be judged now or will it only become clear a few years from now?

In completely unrelated Rhee news it was reported by News8 that “Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson says he will marry D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee over the Labor Day weekend.”

56 Comment

  • How DO we define success? Are test scores sufficient? Are our testing methods reliable? If a school is judged not successful, how do we identify the cause of that failure, and how to we resolve the problem? What is the purpose and value to society of public education?

    These are not questions about Rhee or DCPS but about the entire country’s education system.

    • Good and fair questions, but for the purposes of this discussion, when most people have praised Rhee in the past couple of years, it has been for DC students achieving higher test scores. So for the sake of this argument, lower test scores mean less success for Rhee and Fenty

      • Has it really? No, it hasn’t. People praised Rhee for getting the textbooks delivered on time, firing the deadwood “teachers” who were the daughters of Barry cronies, and closing down 23 completely failed schools. Test scores, yes, but I think firing the teachers is what people tend to focus on with Rhee.

  • its the kids’ own fault

  • If you take credit when it goes up, then you take blame when it goes down.

    • Doesn’t she have a high priced PR consultant who knows the real rule is take credit for Janney’s reforms, and shirk the blame when things go wrong?

      • Right “janney’s reforms” what a lie. As if Janney was anything more than someone who made big promises that the union was going to squash immediately. Calling them “Janney’s Reforms” is pure sexism because you hate women.

    • She is taking blame for them going down. She takes full responsibility in the article.

  • All the kids in this city deserve world class schools, even the ones running around with loaded pistols or hanging out counting their drug sales proceeds in front of hard working folk’s homes. Rhee and Fenty have done some good shit in the face of very hard times. Give them some time to modernize at least the facilities, perhaps that alone, plus some ongoing leadership push from the first lady, can help change the perspective of some of the children in this crime ridden town. We’ll know when we get near there when “they” go to DCPS instead of Sibley, and all toddlers get really awesome early childhood education and socialization.

    • By definition, schools that have kids running around with loaded pistols can not be world class. Sometimes it’s bad kids that cause bad schools, not the other way around.

      • Hey English major, in what part of this person’s post do they say the schools have kids with loaded pistols?

        The kids have the loaded pistols … “in front of hard working folks homes.”

        • Try again neener. Read slowly this time: “All the kids in this city deserve world class schools, even the ones running around with loaded pistols”.Kids running around with pistols can not attend world class schools, as any school that has kids running around with pistols is not a world class school.

  • There are many ways to judge the school system’s success (not all of which are directly attributable to Rhee): graduation rates, SAT scores, DC CAS scores (as cited above), the number of schools making adequate yearly progress (which are based on DC CAS scores), NAEP scores (which track the ‘achievement gap’ and allow cross-city comparisons), the number of enrolled students in the system (a measure of how much confidents parents have in DCPS), the number of students in private placements (an expensive component of special education costs), the proportion of funding that goes to the classroom (as opposed to funds for the central office/maintenance).
    As for whether success or failure can be judged now, Fenty’s stated rationale for removing Janey was that his reforms weren’t happening quickly enough, and Fenty explicitly said that he would bring significant improvement in test scores within two years (if given mayoral control). Since he sold mayoral control as making one person accountable for the school system’s performance – the mayor – I don’t think Fenty would be consistent if he now suddenly said success or failure would only be clear a few years from now.

    • Yes, but are you denying that Fenty did not already reach his success of significant test score increases within the first two years?

  • Rhee is a target because she isn’t black and doesn’t listen to the self-appointed activists who think that they should run the school system.

  • Schools in DC were the absolute worst in the nation a few years ago and by most measures there is improvement and hope for change. I heard Rhee’s counterparts from VA and MD say on NPR that not only is Rhee good, but that it takes 7-15 years of consistant leadership to right a ship. The system is so large it is problematic to keep changing direction and DC keeps doing that. Rhee seeks radical change as DC faces major challenges. Minor change would do what -bring DC to only the bottom 5% or 10% of nationwide schools?

    If Rhee leaves many of her supporters/administrators/corporate donors would leave and it would be another 2 years of backwards again with new leadership, new direction, new principles, etc. Many donors pledged due to the hope of radical change. The wrong signal would be sent if she goes. Mayors can say what they want, but since I’ve been living here only Fenty has made a commitment large enough that we’re talked about on major news networks regularly.

  • I realize that not many of the PoP readers are parents in DCPS, but I am. It is true that facilities are better. The man in charge, Allan Lew, has made improvements.

    I have been a parent in the system for 8 years and things are much worse under Rhee. Despite her claims of cleaning house at the Central Office, you still can’t get anyone to answer a question. Ok, that’s not entirely true. They email you back immediately, tell you “what a great question,” and THEN never respond with an answer. It’s maddening and just like it’s always been, but with blackberries.

    I’ll be the first to admit, DCPS needed reform. Rhee’s brand consists of non stop test prep at the expense of actual learning, fear and threats. My child’s school has lost talented administrators and teachers because of Michelle Rhee. Teaching in urban schools is extraordinarily hard work. Rhee decided everyone in DCPS was bad and needed to be cleared out and yet, test scores still went down? How can this be?

    The gold standard of test scores are the NAEP scores, the national test given each year. DCPS scores have gone up incrementally and steadily over the past 10 years on this test. The real increase on these tests was due to fewer low-income African American children taking the test. Hardly the key to urban reform.

    I realize again that many readers on this blog aren’t at a place where they really care about the schools. I send my child to DCPS. Children deserve better than Michelle Rhee.

    • Your post is completely inconsistent. Are things “much worse under Rhee” or “the same as they have always been?”

      I don’t have kids, but most of my friends and neighbors do–and their kids are in DC public schools. And with one exception, they all feel the schools, and standard of education, have improved significantly under Rhee. The only parent I’ve heard denigrate Rhee is hardly qualified to comment, since her child so rarely bothers to attend school that he was hauled away by the truancy officers twice since the snows of 2010 ended.

    • Pure sexism. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Alan Lew is suddenly “the MAN in charge.” Talk to someone about your personal problems and how they affect your worldview.

  • Agree with Jim -and I posted just before him. My kid actually does go to DCPS and shares a class with Rhee’s daughter so we have the privilege of seeing Ms Rhee and talking to those she manages. There is much high praise. Our principal is much better. Parents who deal with her and the administration are much happier. She is no nonsense and therefore not for everyone.

    Does Rhee have faults -sure. Is DC doing far better than before with fascilities, enrollment, testing, corporate donations, central office, likelihood of government grants, etc? Absolutely. And all this in just 2 years.

    What kills me is how some don’t address the number one issue: How was DC ranked amongst the WORST school districts in the entire US for as long as I’ve been here (15 years)? I live in CH where our local school had like 30% passing test scores. 30%!!!! I grew up in NJ where the public test scores were 97%. What was the comprehensive plan to get us to a top 25%-40%? Who is OK with incremental steps? Kids deserve better and need better to eventually get jobs!

    I have family that teaches in DCPS. They say the same -teaching to kids with major social issues whose parents have other priorities is exhausting and many good teachers simply want out after 2-4 years.

    If you want drastic change expect major issues from those who were part of the old system. Not everyone was bad for sure. What do we have to lose? To return to the basement of school districts? I say stick this out. The upside is worth the risk.

    • I agree with this post 100%.

      I’ve talked to long-term residents who thought that having 50% at grade level and 50% below grade level was adequate progress. In my alma mater elementary school the NCLB test scores several years back were, I believe, 97 and 98%.

      As a neighbor once told me, “You can’t expect black kids to score as well on those tests as white kids.”

      uhhhhh what?

  • Rhee is doing the phenomenal job in the face of overwhelming odds. I don’t (didn’t) expect the DCPS to be fixed in 3 – 5- or even 10 years. But following Rhee’s focus on improving school infrastructure, cutting dead weight (the ‘old school’ teachers who dragged the system down in the first place) and paying teachers higher salaries for demonstrated performance, the school system will improve. The last piece of the puzzle is to force parent accountability – but that is a much bigger cultural shift that will take time to happen. Fenty gets my vote because of Rhee.

  • I’m 7:45, I guess I should clarify. The central office is as bad as ever. Everything else is worse. While Rhee may take credit for facilities improvements, it is not her. Alan Lew deserves credit for improvement there.

    And I should also say, my child doesn’t attend an upper NW school. Rhee is definitely more responsive to affluent parents in high performing schools.

    As for Oyster, word on the street is Rhee is pulling her older daughter out for Deal. It’s nice that she has that option. It’s also nice that she can place her child and the mayor’s children in a high performing school in upper NW as well. For the rest of us, we have to work with our inboundary school or the luck of the lottery.

    I realize it’s not pleasant information, but Rhee has made things worse at many schools. The churn and drama is hard on adults and children.

    For starters, I’d like a “chancellor” who actually has some experience as a principal or a superintendent. It’s not fun having Michelle Rhee and her staff “learn on the job” when your child is the one who takes the hit.

  • I’m not a DCPS parent, yet. My kids are about two years out before we have to decide where they will go to pre-k.

    The problem is simple, Rhee is Korean and most DCPS parents are Black. It’s all about the race. As I’ve visited DCPS schools and met with staff in my efforts to find a school, I’ve been struck by the virulent racism of many of the Black parents. It actually reminds me of my visits to rural white towns in the south: ignorant, uneducated and racist. Nothing like a 300 pound, unemployed, public assistance draining,
    semi-literate, high school dropout, crack head lecturing you on why Rhee hates blacks and whites “taking up” the school. Guess what biotch, whities (i.e. people that pay taxes in the city) are paying for that damn school…

    And, I’m not white. Chicano Pride!

  • How significant were the score declines this year? I haven’t seen any details on this in the articles I’ve read – they simply say scores declined and then use that as a talking point on which people get to pontificate about Rhee.

    Let’s talk analysis – are the declines statistically significant? Are they happening in DC alone or across the country – if so, might the test be non-comparable to the ones from previous years? Are more DC students taking the test than in previous years?

    And, yeah, everyone I know who has any involvement with DC public schools feels generally positive about Rhee.

    • @ 10% decline.

      • saying 10% is a bit of a misrepresentation. 10% decline relative to the previous year, yes. 10% of the total population – no. it’s 4.4%. From WaPo:

        “After rising 20 percentage points from 2007 to 2009, the elementary math proficiency rate dipped 4.6 points this year, to 43.4. The elementary reading proficiency rate, which had risen 11 percentage points from 2007 to 2009, fell 4.4 points, to 44.4 percent. The proficiency rate is essentially a measure of the portion of students who pass the tests.”

        This is also ignoring the point that there was an INCREASE in the secondary level scores: # 43.3% of secondary students in reading, up 3.2% from 2009
        # 43.7% of secondary students in math, up 4.1% from 2009.

        This is also ignoring the forward progress made since Rhee took over (the increase stated above). Here are the totals for elementary:

        2010 44.4
        2009 49
        2008 46
        2007 37.5
        2006 37

        2010 43.4
        2009 49
        2008 40
        2007 29.3
        2006 26

        To me, this all adds up to the fact that something is going right since she’s been there.

    • I don’t know whether the declines in DC CAS test scores were significant. In terms of NAEP scores, the increases were significant in reading and math (for both 4th and 8th graders) from 2007 to 2009.
      I don’t know if Anonymous 7:45’s point about fewer low-income African American students taking the NAEP test is correct – where did you get that information? (There was a change to exclude charter school results from the scores in 2009 which caused the 8th grade gains to be significant).
      Unfortunately, the number of schools making AYP was not released this week (it will be in August). However the national standards apparently increased, meaning that more schools will likely fail to make AYP this year. It should be possible to make equivalent comparisons using old standards, but considering the overall score decline, the number of schools not making AYP will likely be much higher (perhaps why they pushed off releasing that data another month).

  • While I am no expert on DCPS or Rhee, one thing I would mention is that scores cannot continue to improve precipitously. Eventually, it has to level off. It’s just a statistical fact. In many school districts, the same thing happened with “No Child Left Behind,” which I absolutely do not support.

    To be clear, I am not saying I accept mediocrity, but at some point you get to a situation where test scores plateau. While I am not saying DCPS is at that point now, I am saying that if you look at the numbers (a 20% increase in elementary math proficiency, followed by a one year dip of 4.6%), you still have a net gain of 16.4% in 3 years. I’d say that is pretty good and would be willing to give Rhee some latitude.

    FYI: I have no children or dog in this fight. Just offering a thought.

    • Well, your math is wrong. Improving from, roughly, 40-48 pct proficiency is a 20% gain. But, a declining score from 48 back down to 44 is a 10% decline.

      In other words, due to the math of pct changes, half of the prior year gains were erased.

  • Okay, let’s look at some context:

    “After rising 20 percentage points from 2007 to 2009, the elementary math proficiency rate dipped 4.6 points this year, to 43.4. The elementary reading proficiency rate, which had risen 11 percentage points from 2007 to 2009, fell 4.4 points, to 44.4 percent. The proficiency rate is essentially a measure of the portion of students who pass the tests.”

    Sounds to me more of a statistic blip than any type of trend. I mean, in two years, the number of kids proficient in elementary math increased TWENTY PERCENT. Then dropped less than five. this could be explained away by anything, from the particular group of kids, to a teacher being out sick, etc.

    And, not to mention, these are two scores among many. Many. Not to mention:

    “The news was better for middle and high schools, which saw continued gains in reading and math on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS), administered every April.”

  • I am not so sure the fluctuations in recent test scores are related to Rhee’s handling of the schools. They might be. However, look at the school system 4 to 5 years from now to see the true effect. Too much desire for instant gratificiation.

  • I find it interesting that any criticism of Rhee is dismissed as the product of race. It seems like the parents who post here and elsewhere who are critical of Rhee have some valid, substantive complaints. Maybe its not about race and their criticism is warranted? Why assume that just because they are critical of Rhee its because they are motivated by racial animus?

    I know that this is off topic, but see another theme developing in the comments here to the political stories that I wanted to raise. Many of those who support Fenty believe that Vincent Gray = Marion Barry, and that any criticism of Fenty is the product of those who want to return to Barry era policies. Anyone who knows anything about Gray knows that this is not even remotely true. I don’t like a lot of things that Fenty is doing but it’s hardly because I want a return to the Barry type policies.

    • I forgot to mention, I’m a white guy, I’ve lived in the city for 12 years, most of it in Bloomingdale, and I don’t know who I’m voting for.

    • I don’t need to assume that people who are critical of Michelle Rhee are racist, they have used racist and sexist language directly to my face while criticizing her! I have heard this MULTIPLE times in the last 2-3 years.

      The one thing I find really strange were the black parents who called her white. I mean the lady is certainly non-white! How are Asian people mysteriously white to certain communities and what do they represent that gives people that feeling? That’s really weird.

      I know plenty about Gray and it IS True that he will be a return to Barry-type “mystery fence” policies. I am too smart to buy into his constant denials.

      • What about Fenty’s awarding of parks contracts? (Just trying to be fair.)
        She is white to ‘certain communities’ or to the people you heard talking? I have never once heard this. My experience is morons sound louder.
        I do agree strongly with one point I think some of the heat she catches is not because of her race but because she is ‘strong willed’ woman.
        There is a place between cronyism and ‘my way or the highway,’ Rhee (and Fenty) would do well to at least try and reach out a little more, transparency helps. I want Rhee to stay. I believe DCPS more than anything else need consistent leadership.

        I have two kids in DCPS

  • Read Jay Mathews’ column, “D.C. test scores: chilling out about short-term changes”:


  • Does anyone remember the Post article that ran about the time Rhee came to DC? It said that many blacks wanted her to fail because otherwise they’d have to confront the reality that the black community itself could not adequately meet its children’s basic needs. I can’t find it online, but I thought it was quite damning.

    • I do remember that article, and I think there are many blacks who want Rhee to fail for that reason. But that doesn’t mean that all criticism of her can be rejected as being racially motivated.

  • If only we’d spend more money on DC’s public schools, and get more administrators on the payroll, everything would be perfect. It’s really OUR fault for once again short-changing the children.

  • I think the race baiting is a bit much. There are plenty of white parents who are fed up with Rhee. I’ll include myself in that category.

    The NAEP scores are explained here:


    This guy is a retired math teacher. His blog isn’t pretty, but it’s worth a look. He actually examines the numbers, instead of the spin.

    I know I’m looking forward to seeing the school by school breakdown of the test scores. Given that for at least 6 weeks a year, all teaching stops and everything is devoted to test prep, the scores should have gone up again.

    If children lost recess, art, music, language instruction and field trips for a significant portion of the instructional year, we should have seen another “Rhee miracle.”

    As for the notion that improvement takes time, well, while I personally believe that to be true, that has not been Rhee’s stance. If she can fire teachers based on test scores this summer, then she should be held to the same standard.

    It’s been three years. As a DCPS parent, I’m not pleased with Rhee’s performance.

    • How are you not pleased by Rhee’s performance? All you talk about is her implementation of NCLB which is a national process.

      Do you honestly think that schools in the surrounding counties don’t take a 6 week break for tests? Don’t you have friends in FCPS or MCPS who complain about the same thing? You don’t appear to know what you’re talking about by what you posted. In fact, I think your post is entirely BS “Anonymous.”

    • Okay, I see what you are saying – it isn’t that the test was excluding low-income African American students, it was that there were fewer of those students who could take the test (‘changing demographics’). It is entirely plausible that more lower-scoring elementary school students left the system to go to charter schools (as certainly the charter school population has increased during this period), and thus the NAEP scores among those who remained behind increased.
      If that is reflected by the declining population in traditional public schools that won’t be something people can get too excited about (we’d need to see increasing enrollment and increasing test scores to say that reform, and not demographic shifts, are at work).
      It will be interesting to see whether the 3-year increase in scores is reflected in schools throughout the city, or is predominantly found in certain neighborhoods.

  • Michelle Rhee is getting ripped on because the Washington Teachers Union and other local union members- some of these who are my own friends who exposed this- make a concerted effort to take a break at their jobs and post pro-Union and anti-management comments on every story on the Washington Post. I had one neighbor brag to me that his union job paid him to do that while on breaks. Another friend, a teacher in PG County, also told me she did that for all teacher’s stories- “Give the administration hell until they support teachers!” The anti-Rhee commentary is ginned up fakery.

  • Parents first, kids second, Teachers third… and then maybe Dr. Rhee.

  • what is “test prep”? is that the same thing as “learning”?

    • Yes, one wonders, in the words of our former esteemed President, “is our children learning,” as a result of the testing that takes place.

  • PaschTag

    Good DC schools are a wonderful dream.

    And if Rhee is anything like her fiance, she will surely crush the dream.

  • These little blips are irrelevant. Long term, one of two things are going to happen: either gentrification will continue apace, in which case the performance of DCPS students will come to look like those in MoCo and NoVa. Alternately, gentrification will peter out, parents of school aged children will move out of the city, and DCPS will revert to being the dysfunctional holding-pen where the children of the very poor are babysat.

    With the economy and regional traffic congestion, my bet’s on gentrification.

  • Test scores are irrelevant. The DC School System is and will continue to fail kids until they begin to actually teach them. Rhee has simply mandated that each and every school teach kids to the test. They do nothing but go over test questions and practice them repeatedly. Schools also suspend students who are not up to par or expel them (if they are not a boundary school and are able to expel students) before the tests to help pad the results. As a result test scores may be higher but it doesn’t mean kids are learning a thing, or being prepared for college or the workforce. Many still read well below their grade level, if at all, and have no idea how to write, or do simple math. I would agree that her ideas to hold teachers accountable are good and much needed, but it won’t matter if the administrators evaluating and supporting them are horrible (and many are) and they are unable to teach because they have to follow the” teach to the test” curriculum. Higher pay may bring in qualified teachers, but they will leave. Look at the turnover rate for teachers – yes many are bad and need to go but many well qualified, award winning, nationally certified teachers are leaving DCPS. Rhee is hurting the DCPS – not to mention her abrasive arrogant approach turns off many people who otherwise would be willing to work with her.

    • Name one Ward 3 elementary that expelled students over DC CAS. I know for a fact there are none.

      arrogant = “uppity.”

      We get where you’re coming from. Say no more.

  • Let’s be clear-any gains in test scores in the last two years was a result of the former superintendent…NOT RHEE. I was interested to see what she was capable of…and now we see.

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