Why Does the Press Do This? The Washington Post on DC Public Schools

The lead article in the Metro section of today’s Washington Post is headlined: “DC has widest race gap in tests”.  It reports on two studies released yesterday (math and reading) by the US Department of Education, which provide figures from test results of 4th and 8th grade students in various urban jurisdictions around the country, with these results broken down by race among other categories.   Figures are provided on 19 urban jurisdictions, which vary between large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and smaller  jurisdictions such as Jefferson County, Kentucky (Louisville) and Fresno, California.

As the headline states, and as the primary point of the article, the gap in test scores between white and black students in DC public schools, is larger in DC than in any of the other jurisdictions.  This is factually correct.  But the Washington Post article never notes that the reason the gap is so wide in DC is in part due to the fact that the test scores for whites in DC public schools are the highest in the nation among the 19 urban jurisdictions reviewed, for both reading and math, and for both the 4th graders and the 8th graders.

Indeed, the test scores for whites in DC public schools are higher in all four categories than the average scores for whites in any of the 50 US states reported in the similar studies issued by the Department of Education on November 1.  And note that these test results are only for students in DC public schools:  students in charter schools and in private schools are not covered.  Note also that the share of white students in DC public schools, while low, was not the lowest in the country:  7 of the 19 jurisdictions had a lower share of whites in their public schools in the 4th grade, and 2 of the 19 jurisdictions had a lower share in the 8th grade.

The gap is wide in DC also because the test scores reported for blacks are low.  For the four scores for 4th grade and 8th grade reading and math, the scores for blacks vary between the second worst and the fourth worst among the 19.  It is important to know this. The results indicate that students can do well in DC public schools (the white students score higher than any of the others in the 19 urban jurisdictions, and higher than whites in any of the 50 states).  But black students are not doing well, and one should focus on trying to understand why.

Finally, the city with the “best” (lowest) racial gap among the 19 was Cleveland for the 4th grade students, in both reading and math.  Cleveland’s gap in the scores was only 22 in reading and 21 in math.  In contrast, the gap for Washington, DC, 4th graders was 64 in reading and 60 in math.  But Cleveland achieves this distinction of being “best” in the nation by the criterion the Post judges as most important, by having the worst scores among the 19 jurisdictions, for both whites and blacks in both reading and math.   This is obviously not something to emulate.

One clearly should want to reduce the racial gaps in such test scores in DC as well as elsewhere.  But the intelligent way to start to do this is to recognize that at least a certain group of students is performing pretty well in DC public schools, with scores that are consistently the highest in the nation in the jurisdictions reviewed.  This is relevant, but never mentioned in the Post article.  It suggests that the curriculum and other practices in DC public schools can produce good results.  But blacks in DC public schools have struggled, and the focus should be on how to raise this.