D.C.’s Ersatz Surge in Reading Scores

With the release of the 2019 NAEP scores, D.C. has been all a tizzy about its seemingly good performance (SURGE!), as evinced by this Washington Post article. Unfortunately, the article is written very confusingly and mixes different types of data and results. Nonetheless, there is a key point: among DCPS students (those students who attend public, non-charter schools*), there was a significant increase in 8th grade reading scores, driven by Hispanic students.

If we dig into this a bit further, we see something a little less ‘surgey.’ The first thing to note is that 2017 was a bad year–while there’s an increase relative to 2015, it’s much smaller: 247 in 2019, 244 in 2015, a 0.06 standard deviation increase–which is ‘real’, but not BIGLY (better than a 0.06 SD drop obviously). In other words, Hispanic scores plunged in 2017, so any reversion to the mean will look like a surge. Among Hispanic DCPS students in 2019, there was a huge difference in students who are English Language Learners versus those who aren’t: 220 vs. 260, more than one standard deviation, which provides a hint as to what happened.

Unfortunately, we can’t dive further into the DCPS set further to look at income due to sample size limitations, but when we look at DC schools as a whole, including charters, what we see is that Hispanic ELL students who are eligible for school lunch had 8th grade reading scores in 2017 that were horrible in 2017–between 2017 and 2019, they increased by ~0.6 standard deviations.

In other words, 2017 was a horrible year for low-income English Language Learner Hispanic students (there are no data before 2017 unfortunately), as they performed far worse than Students with Disabilities**. Simply not having a horrible 2019 is what’s driving the 8th grade reading surge. Mind you, this is a good thing, but it’s hardly evidence of a massive improvement, especially when considered in the light of other demographic groups’ non-improvement. Put this another way, why is no one being held accountable for the bad year of 2017? It’s better than it was a decade ago, but it’s not a recent SURGE.

*About half of D.C. students attend charter schools thanks to Congressional meddling.

**One wonders if, in 2017, being an Latino immigrant in the era of Trump affected scores (anecdotally, I’ve heard from Latino parents that their kids were very concerned). After all, the election appears to have affected Latina miscarriage rates.

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