Abysmal Performance Plagues DC Schools

Published April 1, 1998

Despite per-pupil spending levels that are among the highest in the nation, 1996-97 achievement scores released last December show that students in the District of Columbia’s public schools continue to perform at abysmally low levels in math and reading, as they have since LBJ occupied the White House.

In mathematics, only 2 percent of tenth-grade students were able to perform at grade level, while more than half of eleventh-grade students had little or no fundamental ability to read at grade level.

Further analysis of the math test results showed that 89 percent of the tenth-grade students fell below basic, meaning they have “little or no mastery of fundamental knowledge and skills” required of the grade level. If four of the highest-scoring high schools are removed, then 96 percent of the tenth-grade students at the remaining 12 schools could not perform at the basic level.

Calling the results “dismal” and “unacceptable,” the systems’s chief academic officer and deputy superintendent Arlene Ackerman did not try to pin responsibility for poor performance on either students or parents. “These outcomes . . . are the result of a system’s failure to educate its students,” she said.

Ackerman has identified 21 of the district’s 146 schools as “inadequate,” based on poor test scores from October 1997. Under a plan worked out with the Washington Teachers’ Union, if the May 1998 test scores have not increased by at least 10 percent, the failing schools will be “reconstituted.” All teachers would be required to reapply for their jobs, and only half would be permitted to be rehired by their school.