Image by Garrett W licensed under Creative Commons.

The District of Columbia recently released the results of the 2017 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam, a measure of student readiness for college and career.

While praise for the results is warranted as the city continued its upward climb, we must address the fact that race and income-level gaps in achievement continue to grow.

Here’s what the PARCC data says

First the good news: District students saw four percent growth in English Language Arts (ELA) and two percent growth in math. However, while we applaud the continued improvement across the city, we must also look more closely to truly understand where our city’s educational systems are today.

Digging deeper into the PARCC data reveals some alarming trends: the achievement gap between white and black students, as well as between income levels, grew.

In ELA, the percentage of white students reaching a PARCC Level 4–indicating college and career readiness–grew by 7.7 percent, while the percentage of African American students at Level 4 grew by just 2.7 percent. In math, white students grew by 4.5 percent, while African American students grew by just 1.2 percent.

Results for economically disadvantaged students, a group that grew by 3.2 percent in ELA and 2.1 percent in math on the 2017 PARCC, also require further examination.

The city’s current method of counting these students involves a three-part test. If a student (1) receives free or reduced-price meals based on income eligibility, (2) is direct certified (meaning he or she receives a different form of government assistance), or (3) attends a Community Eligibility Provision school (one that is eligible to provide its entire student population with free or reduced-price meals), he or she is considered economically disadvantaged.

What does this mean? Much of the growth among economically disadvantaged students may come from students who are not personally economically disadvantaged, but simply attend a community eligible school. School systems do not report individual student data for students in community eligible schools (as they do for students in non-community eligible schools.) In DC, 151 schools are community-eligible, and as many as 40 percent of students at those schools may not personally meet the definition of "economically disadvantaged."

Other data reveals similar problems

These gaps are not new or unique to PARCC scores. Their persistence is best captured by the trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest nationally representative, continuous assessment of what America’s students know. The District’s 2015 NAEP results indicated the following for 8th grade math scores:

  • In 2015, black students had an average score that was 59 points lower than that for white students. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 2000 (69 points).
  • In 2015, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an average score that was 39 points lower than that for students who were not eligible. This performance gap was wider than that in 2000 (31 points).

Regarding 8th grade reading scores in the District, the 2015 Nation’s Report Card stated:

  • In 2015, black students had an average score that was 57 points lower than their white counterparts.
  • In 2015, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch had an average score that was 37 points lower than students who were not eligible. This performance gap was wider than it was in 1998 (25 points).

Where can we go from here?

We are encouraged that the city is recognizing and targeting these gaps. In previewing DCPS’ new Capital Commitment, Chancellor Wilson acknowledged, “We have far to go, especially for our students of color. Stark gaps persist between our students of color and their white counterparts in achievement rates, graduation rates, and post-secondary paths. There are also gaps in achievement levels when comparing schools across different wards, which align closely with socioeconomic gaps.”

Late last week, DCPS also announced a $2.6 million investment to support Excellence Through Equity, which will provide DCPS schools the ability to innovate around attendance, literacy and math instruction, and social emotional learning.

This new investment builds upon a decision our city made in 2014 to invest more in the almost 40,000 DC Public School and public charter school students who are considered “at-risk” of academic failure due to poverty. This funding has meant that schools have received more than $2,000 per student annually to boost achievement. Unfortunately, to date, we have only limited data on how these funds have been spent and no data about the outcomes of the investments.

While we acknowledge the progress our city has made, and are cautiously optimistic about the new investments, we know that we must do more for our students who are most at-risk of academic failure.

We hope that the Council will require an evaluation of the investment of our at-risk dollars, as well as the new DCPS Excellence Through Equity investment, and work to ensure that this dedicated funding is being spent effectively to close the gaps that plague our city’s educational systems. We also believe that our local school communities, particularly Local School Advisory Teams, should be more involved in the decision-making at the local school level to craft solutions that will best meet the needs of their students.

Joe Weedon is the Ward 6 representative to the DC State Board of Education. He lives in Ward 6 with his wife and two children.

Jack Jacobson is in his second term representing Ward 2 on the State Board of Education, where he serves as Vice President. He previously served three terms as an ANC Commissioner in Dupont Circle, where he lives with his boyfriend and their cat, Ghost.