One of the biggest stories coming out of the 2013 NAEP TUDA data release, especially for those inside the beltway, were the results for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).

When state-level NAEP results came out last month, Washington, D.C., showed strong gains. But since charters (which enroll nearly half of the city’s children) were included in the results, it was impossible to tell how the district alone had fared.

But the success of IMPACT on human-capital practices and last year’s positive state test scores suggested the district was headed in the right direction.

NAEP TUDA results include only district schools in D.C. (since charters are their own LEAs), and 21 districts participate in this test. So TUDA was set to be the best barometer yet for DCPS’s progress—compared to both its own previous performance and that of other urban districts.

At first blush, the results are very positive. In each of the four areas assessed (reading and math in fourth and eighth grades), DCPS made statistically significant gains in scale scores. It was the only city with such results. In fact, only eight of the 21 cities had even one statistically significant gain (two saw a drop, and 11 cities made no significant gain whatsoever).

There is no doubt that this feels like a good-news story for the city. I’m proud of the hard work started by Michelle Rhee and carried on and accelerated by Kaya Henderson and their teams, and I’m very glad for the kids who are benefitting.

But a dig through the numbers reveals a more complicated story—and one that’s not as uplifting as the headlines.

First, this progress needs to be put into context. Even after this year’s gains, DCPS is still among the lowest- performing urban districts in America. Those participating include notoriously struggling cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, and Milwaukee.

Among this group of 21 urban districts, DCPS now ranks 13th, 14th, 16th, and 17th in the four tested areas.

These relative placements translate into deeply distressing overall proficiency rates for DCPS: 30 percent in fourth-grade math, 25 percent in fourth-grade reading, 17 percent in eighth-grade math, and 18 percent in eighth-grade reading.

In other words, fewer than one in five DCPS students entering high school are truly prepared for secondary-level work.

But when you disaggregate these results, an even gloomier picture appears. DCPS is truly a tale of two cities.

White students in DCPS outperform white students in every other participating city, and the same is true of its non-poor students in both fourth-grade tests.

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Moreover, and importantly for understanding the district’s overall gains, these two groups of students made huge progress since the test’s last administration.

Take, for example, the following:

· In fourth-grade math, DCPS’s non-poor students saw the biggest gains compared to their peers in the 21 other cities, and white students saw the fifth-biggest gains. In eighth-grade math, DCPS’s non-poor students also outgained their peers in all participating cities.

· In fourth-grade reading, DCPS’s non-poor students again had the largest gains compared to their peers in all cities, and white students had the fifth-biggest gains. This was true of DCPS’s white and non-poor students in eighth-grade reading as well.

So how are black students and low-income students (those qualifying for the federal meals program) doing?

Not well at all.

In fourth-grade math, DCPS’s black students’ average scale score was better than their peers’ average in only four cities. This group did have the second-largest gains since 2011. But this only raised their proficiency rate to 18 percent.

The same picture emerges in fourth-grade reading. The scale scores of low-income students in DCPS are higher than those of their peers in only Detroit and Cleveland (the two lowest-performing cities across the board), and they saw no statistically significant gains. Only 12 percent are proficient. Only 13 percent of black students in DCPS are proficient, and they didn’t improve significantly, either.

In eighth-grade math, DCPS’s low-income students did have a statistically significant gain. But, depressingly, this only brought the group up to 8 percent proficiency; and despite this progress, they are outperformed by the low-income students (measured by scale scores) of every participating city except Detroit.

The results from eighth-grade reading may be the most discouraging. Yes, DCPS had a statistically significant gain among low-income students, but where did that progress lead? These students still have the lowest scale score compared to their peers in all participating cities, Detroit included. DCPS’s black students too made statistically significant progress. But only 9 percent are now proficient—a rate better only than Detroit, Fresno, and Milwaukee.

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I’m proud of DCPS for the progress they’ve made, and it brings me no pleasure to rain on the city’s parade or dampen the enthusiasm of those working for the district—many of whom I admire and consider friends.

But I find it hard to celebrate today. Overall, DCPS’s scores are discouragingly low, even when compared to other underperforming cities. The district’s least disadvantaged students are excelling and making big gains, while the most disadvantaged are making modest progress and perform at heartbreakingly low levels.

As I wrote yesterday, progress is only as good as where it takes you. For all of the talk of TUDA gains over the last decade, an honest assessment of our current status can lead to only one conclusion: The pace of improvement hasn’t been nearly fast enough, because a miniscule fraction of disadvantaged kids in urban districts are succeeding.

Consider that after a decade of purportedly exciting widespread progress, an ostensibly high-performing urban district like Boston has only one in five of its low-income eighth graders reading proficiently. And the nearly seven years of dynamic, inspirational leadership and reform of DCPS hasn’t been able to change the fact that the district has the lowest reading scale scores for low-income eighth graders.

I hope this causes some of you to ponder whether our energy is now best spent trying to fix these urban districts or if it’s finally time to replace them.

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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