Truth-tellers, liars and equivocators

Test scores are up, but Fenty's claim is convoluted

August 25, 2010 - 01:09 PM
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If Adrian Fenty wants his race against Vince Gray to be about one thing, it's education. If he wants it to be about two things, it's education and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. And if he could choose three, they would be education, schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and the schools in general.

So on Day 2 of The Facts Machine's DCision 2010 Edumacation Kids Are Political Pawns Series of Special Fact Checks, we decided to take a look at Fenty's record on the education. Specifically, the claim he touted on the top of his website: "Increased student test scores by as much as 11 percent, the largest gain in the nation."

A few notes before we get started. There's no question test scores have risen under Fenty. And Fenty had that claim on his website for a long time, well before the most recent test scores — which showed a slight decline since last year in some categories — were released.

The Fenty camp, after being asked to provide backing for their claim, pointed us to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Fourth and eighth grade students take the NAEP for reading and math every two years, and it's used as a way for school districts (who all have their own standardized tests) to compare their students with the nation's.

The Fenty campaign is comparing the numbers from 2005 and 2009. They said fourth grade reading scores saw the 11 percent increase. The fourth grade reading score was 191 in 2005, and 203 in 2009. (Scores are out of 500.) That's not an 11 percent increase. It's a 6 percent increase. For the other categories:

We looked at the other large urban school districts that participated in the NAEP. None of their gains in fourth grade reading were larger than the District's. So the test score gain Fenty was referencing wasn't 11 percent, but it was the nation's largest.

Of course, the District's gains in the other three categories were smaller. And after comparing them to other cities, only the score jump for fourth grade math was the largest.

We reached out to the Fenty campaign for clarification on the 11 percent increase, and we've yet to hear back from them. But an astute reporter for another publication speculated the 11 percent increase might actually refer to an increase in the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System.

According to DCPS, from 2007 to 2010, the pass rate on the CAS has increased:

  • 6.9 percentage points in reading for elementary school students.
  • 14.1 percentage points in math for elementary school students.
  • 13.5 percentage points in reading for secondary school students.
  • 16.6 percentage in math for secondary school students.

The pass rate in all four categories is hovering around 43 or 44 percent. Still, none of those gains are in the 11 percent range, so they aren't what Fenty was referring to.

Maybe he was looking at the increase from 2007 to 2009, since when he started making the claim, the 2010 scores had yet to be released. And here, we might finally have our answer. From 2007 to 2009, the percentage of students passing reading tests at the elementary and secondary school levels both increased by 11 points.

We're thinking that's where the 11 percent number came from. If it is, the mayor's statement mixed two different tests and two different time periods. It's worth noting all of these tests still show District students lagging behind average national scores and that many experts think the District is progressing faster than the average urban school district.

While confusing and convoluted, Fenty was still ultimately Mostly On Point. The mayor definitely "increased student test scores." And the biggest jumps were "the largest gain in the nation," at least among the urban school districts that participated in the NAEP.

Mostly On Point

That test scores have gone up isn't much of a surprise — even Gray concedes that. Tomorrow, we'll look at a more controversial question, one that helps explain the racial divide driving the mayor's race: Have Fenty and Rhee closed the achievement gap?

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  1. kdking97 kdking97

    Karen King

    Aug 26, 2010 - 10:57:37 AM

    BTW, NAEP scores are not percentages, but scale scores. All tests are on the same scale, so that they can be compared. The fourth grade and eighth grade reading scores are on the same scale. NAEP does report the percentage of students who make certain targets (basic, proficient, advanced).

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