Image by Alan Levine licensed under Creative Commons.

Test scores for DC’s public schools are out, and policy-makers and the Post are touting steady progress citywide. Meanwhile, parents are evaluating the city’s many school choices in anticipation of the winter lottery. Academic outcomes matter to them, certainly, but for parents who also seek out affluent school communities, some surprising results on last spring’s tests will challenge common notions about school quality.

Our analysis finds that a good number of public schools–district-run and charter–are outperforming expectations but get overlooked by affluent school-seekers because of their demographics. These schools are getting results as good or better than schools with long waiting lists and fewer students in poverty. Parents (and policymakers): they’re worth a look.

Demographics affect parent preferences

When choosing a school, parents consider location, academic outcomes, curriculum, instructional model, and intangible factors like fit and school culture. However, research drawing on data from the MySchoolDC lottery suggests something Washingtonians might hesitate to admit: parents prefer to be in schools with families like theirs. The study’s authors concluded: “Academic performance was not the only factor...parents choose schools based on the race and income of students, but did not weight that as strongly. Parents tend to rank schools higher if there are more students in the same racial or ethnic group as their own children.”

The good news, though, is that parents (of all racial backgrounds) also might seek out diverse schools: “If the own-group percentage is low, parents show a strong preference against a school. But as the percentage rises, the relationship weakens and even becomes negative, suggesting a taste for diversity.”

Conversation on parenting forums like DC Urban Moms and Dads exemplifies the tradeoffs parents consider. Commenters ask about “in-boundary” students, with the implication that in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood, more in-boundary students will create a more affluent parent body. Looking at in-boundary percentage data helps parents “see if the school is on an upward trajectory with higher SES [socioeconomic status] families IB [in-boundary],” wrote one commenter. Other comments cite the benefits of active PTAs and “on grade level” peers.

The assumption parents make is that schools with affluent parent bodies are higher quality than schools serving mostly high-poverty students, an assumption GGWash has written about in the past.

Concentrated poverty correlates with lower student achievement–but not everywhere

Diving into schools’ 2017 PARCC data–the standardized assessment that DC students take each spring, starting in 3rd grade–reveals interesting trends about the effects of poverty in schools, some reinforcing and some breaking down the Washingtonian parent mythology.

In the District, income levels vary for students classified as qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch–schools’ long-used indicator of poverty. A far better indicator is the District’s “at-risk” designation, an additional funding stream designated for the highest-need students–identified as those who are homeless, in foster care, qualified for food stamps or TANF, or over-age for their grade level. The District classifies half of DC public school students–44.3%–as at risk of academic failure for these reasons, as of the 2016-2017 school year.

In general, students experiencing significant challenges outside of school also experience challenges in school. That’s why the District invests additional dollars for at-risk students. PARCC data backs up this correlation, both at the school level and student level. In 2017, 15.8% of at-risk students were on grade level in reading and 14.2% in math, on average. And at the school level, the percent of at-risk students is the strongest predictor of a school’s overall PARCC results.

Image by the author.

To assess schools, look beyond demographics

Demographics, however, don’t determine school quality. In-school factors–like a strong principal, great teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and a safe and nurturing school climate–have a significant effect on student outcomes, too, for both affluent and poor students. It’s one reason that the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) reports on growth scores–available later this fall for 2016-2017–as well as raw achievement levels.

We find that student growth in proficiency over the last two years is not statistically significantly correlated with poverty levels in schools. In high-growth schools with excellent educators, including many serving high-poverty populations, students often achieve strong academic results–even far surpassing expected performance.

Using testing data released this month, we conducted an analysis of all public schools in DC, calculating their Projected Proficiency (PP), which is the dashed line in the figure below, and Percent Proficient Above Expected (PPAE). We found that 21 DC public and public charter schools, represented by blue dots below–which we call “Bold Performance Schools”–outperformed the trend line by more than 10 percentage points. These schools vary in academic model, school culture, and neighborhood. (District Measured conducted a similar analysis of 2014-2015 high school results.)

*Schools with fewer than 25 at-risk students could not be included in the analysis.

Digging into actual school performance vs. expected performance might change parent opinions about school quality in gentrifying DC neighborhoods. For example:

  • Ludlow-Taylor Elementary, a stone’s throw from Two Rivers-4th Street Public Charter School, which boasts the longest waiting list in the city, outperforms Two Rivers on PARCC and outperforms the expected proficiency trend line. Ludlow serves nearly double Two Rivers’ population of at-risk students in tested grades. Despite the school’s strong performance, many white families at Ludlow leave after the early childhood years.
  • Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, where only 30.7% of tested students are at-risk, performs 9 points below expectations, with 28.2% of students on grade level in reading and math combined; whereas Center City - Shaw Public Charter School, with nearly double the percentage of at-risk students (56%), performs 10.8 points above expectations, with an average of 34% of their students on grade level on PARCC reading and math exams. Perhaps more interesting: there’s almost no gap in proficiency between at-risk and non-at risk students at Center City - Shaw. (At Stuart-Hobson, only 5% of at-risk students are proficient in math and 20% in reading.)

Comparing schools with similar PARCC scores, but dramatically different student bodies, also challenges conventional wisdom:

  • Ketcham Elementary in Ward 8, where more than 90% of students are at-risk, performs at about the same levels as Bridges, a charter school popular with upper-middle-class parents in the District, which performs below expected proficiency levels.
  • Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School, with a waiting list of more than 800 students, has an average of math and reading scores combined only 1 percentage point higher than Thomson Elementary, a DCPS school located downtown and serving a student body that is 4.2% white and 51% at-risk. Of students tested last spring at Inspired Teaching, 28.1% were at-risk and 29% were white. (Inspired Teaching serves even more white students in early grades.)

Your school hunt just got more complicated

In a city with more than 200 public school choices, it’s easy to overlook some good ones if you rely only on word of mouth and what’s nearby. And it’s easy to feel like you have few choices if you consider only the most popular schools.

Progressive parents and DC residents who value equity should care about in-school factors, not just demographics. It’s true that a school’s test scores reflect challenges that students come to school with, but our analysis shows that beating the odds is very possible. The stereotype might be that these schools just focus on test prep to achieve strong results -- but if you visit many, as we have, you’ll find joyful classrooms, a well-rounded curriculum, and a focus on critical thinking.

Schools with strong leadership, excellent teaching, and a rigorous curriculum can exist anywhere. You can find them in DC–and, thus, have more school choices–if you care to look.

Catharine Bellinger serves as DC Director for Education Reform Now, an education policy and research organization, and its partner Democrats for Education Reform, a political action group in DC. She lives in Ward 1.

Josh Boots is the Founder and Executive Director of EmpowerK12, a DC-based nonprofit supporting the implementation of data best practices in public schools across DC. Prior to starting EmpowerK12 in 2013, Josh served in a variety of education roles in DC over the last 14 years, including teaching middle school math at DCPS's Hine Jr. High and as Director of Data at KIPP DC.