The District’s Achievement Gap

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Earlier this spring, the State Board of Education approved a new school accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This new system of ‘grading’ our schools will reduce the emphasis put on test scores, reward schools for individual student growth, and weigh factors such as school climate and curriculum. Over the next few months, the Board will be convening a Task Force, of which I am a member, to continue our work in developing this new rating system as well as to provide input on a new school report card.

One of the city’s goals in this process (a goal I share), is to develop a tool that will allow parents to better understand and compare how our schools are performing regardless of whether they are a DCPS or a public charter school. Another goal that is at the heart of all the work that the State Board does, is to ensure our city is actively working to close the achievement gaps that plague our city while maintaining the high expectations that we have for our students. I believe the work we’ve done will help us make strides on both these goals. However, to truly close the achievement gap, we must begin to address it directly.

The achievement gap in the District is immense and persistent. The same National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results that are used to substantiate the claim that DCPS is the “fastest improving urban school district in the country” also report that the performance gap between rich and poor students (those who are eligible for free/reduced lunch) has not narrowed and, in some cases, has increased, over the past decade. I’m not cherry picking the results; the results apply to both ELA and Math for both 4th and 8th grade. There is immense pressure, rightly so, on our school leaders to reduce this gap even if we rarely acknowledge it publicly. Unfortunately, the resources our city has earmarked to help often fail to reach our schools and the students that need the most support.

In an analysis of last year’s city budget, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that nearly half of the “at-risk” funding allocated by DCPS to individual schools was used to support core functions which are intended to be funded for all schools and should not require dipping into supplemental at-risk funds. In this year’s budget, we see more of the same. The at-risk funding fails to follow students and our local school advisory teams (LSAT) have little say in how the limited flexible funds available will be used to best support their individual school community.

In a city where our schools are alarmingly segregated – 71 percent of black students attended schools in 2013 that had virtually no white peers – I’m proud that Ward 6 is different. We have some of the most integrated schools, both racially and economically, in the city. And, I also believe that our community is strongly committed to addressing the gaps. There are no parents who do not want what is best for their students and who do not want to see all students have the opportunity to succeed. I’d argue that our community has done more than any other, whether it’s via lobbying the council or raising funds to support our students, to address the achievement and opportunity gaps that exist in our city. However, there is still more that we can do.

We need to ensure that DCPS is held accountable for ensuring that all at-risk funds follow the students to our schools. And we must do more to support our teachers and principals as they balance the tricky demands of ensuring that all students receive a rich, engaging education while also closing the achievement gaps that exist in our schools.

Joe Weedon is Ward 6’s elected representative to the DC State Board of Education. He can be contacted at Joe.Weedon@dc.gov.