Photo of Wilson High School from DCPS website.

Wilson High School is the largest and most sought-after neighborhood high school in DC. On Friday, its principal announced that DC Public Schools had decided not to renew his contract for next year because standardized test scores at the school were unsatisfactory. How do these two facts fit together?

Wilson’s principal, Pete Cahall, recently made headlines when he came out at the school’s Pride Day event. Now he’s in the news for another reason: he sent a letter to the DC Council announcing he’d been fired. Although he said he wasn’t going to fight the decision, he listed what he saw as his accomplishments at the school—including raising test scores.

DCPS evaluates principals based on a number of factors in addition to test scores. And in accordance with its general policy of silence on personnel decisions, the agency hasn’t explained why Cahall was fired. But let’s assume Cahall’s explanation is accurate. Given that Wilson’s test scores are the highest of any DCPS high school that doesn’t require students to submit applications, many may be wondering where Cahall fell short.

Wilson’s achievement gap

Most likely, the answer is that he failed to significantly boost scores for low-income and minority students at the school. For the 2012-13 school year, proficiency rates on DC’s standardized tests, the DC CAS, were 90% for white students and only about 47% for black students. There are marked disparities in proficiency rates between whites and Hispanic, special education, and low-income students as well.

As a result, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education has classified Wilson as a Focus school under federal guidelines. Focus schools are schools that have large achievement gaps between specific groups of students and get special monitoring and professional development. There are 20 DCPS schools in that category, but Wilson is the only high school. Deal Middle School, Wilson’s main feeder school, is not in the Focus category.

Wilson, located in Ward 3, has more affluent and white students than any other neighborhood high school in DC. But it’s still pretty diverse. Its enrollment is 46% black, 17% Hispanic, and 31% low-income. Students who live outside its boundaries make up 46% of its student body.

In his letter to the DC Council, Cahall pointed out that scores for Wilson’s African-American students increased last year: the proficiency rates for that group went up from 45% to 58% in math and from 49% to 61% in reading, according to the DCPS website. (Last year’s scores for low-income students at Wilson aren’t available yet.)

Perhaps DCPS just didn’t think that progress was enough. But it’s also possible that other factors entered into its decision. While many commenters on the DC Urban Moms and Dads forum expressed disappointment at Cahall’s departure, others had complaints. Some didn’t like the way he handled a robbery spree at the school last month, and several felt he wasn’t moving the school forward academically.

Two Wilsons

While the specifics of Cahall’s firing aren’t entirely clear, many have observed that for years there have essentially been two Wilsons: one for affluent white students, most of whom live within the school’s boundaries, and another for low-income minority students, many of whom come from other parts of the District.

The first group can get a pretty good education at Wilson, but the others often don’t get the attention they need. Maybe DCPS hopes that firing Cahall will move the school in the direction of making the Wilson experience the same for students at all income levels. Is that possible?

One way to measure how much a school does for its students is to look at how much its students have improved on test scores. DCPS and other government agencies tend to emphasize proficiency rates, which measure the number of students who score above a certain “cut score.” But if students come in at a fairly high level of proficiency, it doesn’t make sense to give the school credit for that.

Growth percentiles, on the other hand, compare test scores at the school against those for students with similar levels of prior achievement across the city. If a school has a median growth percentile of 60, that means that on average, its students grew as well or better than 60% of their academic peers. You can find measures of student growth for all DCPS and DC charter schools in the school equity reports available through the LearnDC website maintained by DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Growth measures at Wilson and elsewhere

The growth percentiles for low-income students at Wilson haven’t been all that impressive. The average for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years was 43 for both math and reading, below the city average of 49. (The overall growth percentiles at Wilson were 53 for reading and 48 for math.)

Some other non-selective DCPS high schools had better growth percentiles for their low-income students, even though their overall proficiency rates are far lower than Wilson’s. In math, Ballou’s low-income growth percentile was 50 and Cardozo’s was 52. In reading, Coolidge’s figure was 46 and Eastern’s was 49.

None of these figures is stellar, but one charter high school does far better than that: the growth percentiles for low-income students at Thurgood Marshall Academy were 86 for math and 73 for reading.

Of course, it isn’t always fair to compare charter and DCPS schools. Charter schools have more freedom to experiment and don’t have to take in new students mid-year, which can be disruptive. And to some extent, students at charters are a self-selected group since their parents were motivated enough to apply.

But virtually all low-income students at Wilson had to apply as well since they’re largely from outside the school’s boundaries. So they, too, are a self-selected group.

Socioeconomic integration may not be enough to help poor kids

Some have argued that low-income students do better at schools with a significant proportion of more affluent students. But Wilson’s growth percentiles suggest that merely putting them in the same building with wealthier peers isn’t enough. And Thurgood Marshall, with its far higher growth figures, is 80% low-income.

One advantage to a school that has a large proportion of low-income kids is that it can focus on the remediation that many of its students need. That may be more challenging at a more diverse school where kids come in at different levels.

Of course, test scores don’t measure everything. No doubt there are other advantages to a socioeconomically diverse school like Wilson. Theoretically, kids of all backgrounds learn to interact with students who come from circumstances different from their own, even if the subgroups don’t mingle all that much.

But Wilson needs to figure out a way to do better by its low-income and minority students. Whether or not Cahall was on his way to doing that is now a moot point, but it should be a top priority for his successor.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.