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DC Students See Gains No Matter How You Slice It

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

The Washington Post reported on the impressive NAEP gains in the DC, but also that measure of student income in the city has become distorted. The District of Columbia Public School system apparently changed the measure of Free and Reduced-Price lunch eligibility between the 2011 and 2013 NAEP exams. This leaves a bit of mystery as to whether gentrification is driving the impressive academic gains seen in NAEP. The Washington Post reported:

Until last year, children became eligible for free meals by turning in forms showing household income. Now, if 40 percent of children in a D.C. school are in foster care, homeless, or receiving welfare benefits, every child in the school is deemed eligible for free meals.

The change in the District is a test of a new federal policy meant to ensure that more hungry kids have access to free meals. It means that some children who are not actually poor, but who attend high-poverty schools, are probably now included in the low-income category, said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP.

Buckley could have also noted that it is almost certainly the case that low-income students attend schools that do not meet this new definition of student poverty. Moreover schools that do not meet this definition in DC may be clustered in Georgetown. Could then gentrification be driving the test score gains in DC?

Before the change of the FRL measure, DCPS saw very large gains among poor students and even larger gains among non-poor students. This seems consistent with a process of steady gentrification and steady improvement. Moreover, the widening gap between non-poor and poor students seemed of little concern given the strong gains at the bottom. I can’t really see how more upper-middle class people choosing to live in the city rather than the suburbs rates as a problem. Unless we want to make a fetish out of achievement gaps, our focus should remain on improving the performance of disadvantaged students.

The 2013 Free and Reduced-price lunch measure is not comparable to the 2011 measure, but we still have avenues to assess the gentrification theory. At the 8th grade level we can track academic progress by highest level of education obtained by the student’s mother. Tracking this data for reading back as far as it will go gives us the following picture:

NAEP 98-13 8R

We can reasonably surmise that the students whose parents have decided to shell out a mint for a quaint DC brownstone will be heavily clustered among women with a college degree. The sons and daughters of college graduates have shown progress in DC, but so has everyone else.

Taking the math trends back as far as they will go shows the same trend.

DCPS 8M 00-13

Note both the strong improvement across categories, and the fact that the students with “some college” outperformed the students with mothers with college degrees both in terms of progress over time and even in overall proficiency. The short run score gains (2013 minus 2011 scores) show the strongest gains for the children of college graduates in reading but not in math.

While gentrification is in all likelihood playing a role in DC’s improving NAEP scores, we can rule out the notion that the phenomenon plays a dominant role in driving scores.

About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.