11/13/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Should We Read NAEP Test Score Results in Washington D.C.?

When Michelle Rhee began her reign of erroneous terror on D.C. schools, I limited my comments to the national implications of her policies. As Arne Duncan said, the District had "more money than god," but it was an even bigger mess than the schools that I knew.

In lieu of consulting education research or planning the implementation of their risky experiments, D.C. reformers threw unimaginable amounts of money at the problems of their 70 percent low-income district. That was their business, however.

My complaint was that the Rhee-ocrats imposed their agenda on schools across the nation, including my 90 percent low-income district where our students probably face even more trauma, violence, and health problems. Oklahoma City barely has a third of the D.C.'s per student funding but before test-driven accountability, we were seeking funds for early education and other science-based policies.

We could barely find warm bodies for schools that serve intense concentrations of extreme poverty and trauma, and yet national reformers coerced us into adopting their gold-plated systems for firing teachers.

I read research from an inner city teacher's perspective, meaning that I pay attention to the reliable NAEP scores. I ignore the "bubbles" of dramatic District test scores. Across the nation, failing schools play the game and produce one miraculous improvement after another, as they continue to fail students.

I read the 8th grade NAEP reading test as the key metric for judging the effectiveness of school reforms. It is nice when 4th grade scores go up, but when they aren't sustained even into middle school, what is the value? And, reading comprehension is the key to educational success. As long as D.C. NAEP test score growth was limited to 4th grade and math scores, increases in the top performers, and the affluent, and as long as 8th grade reading scores for the black majority stagnated, I attributed the District's gains to gentrification.

Progress in NAEP scores mostly slowed after NCLB and Rhee's testing mania. The 2013 NAEP shows, however, that progress is finally being made in 8th grade reading by both low-income and black students. Perhaps Jay Greene is correct and gains were slow to register because, in 2007, the NAEP sample started to include more special education students and that hid improvements in D.C. classrooms.

Or, perhaps the current increases are inflated because of the recent changes in Free and Reduced Lunch rules. Of course, gentrification has continued to increase D.C. student performance. And, we may be seeing the results of improved early education and the better socio-emotional supports that we should want for any system.

We should listen to Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP. He warns against drawing conclusions about the progress of the District's poor students based on the 2013 test results. But we, or at least I, should also look in the mirror. Regardless of the accuracy of my conclusions, to borrow Steve Glazerman's term, I had committed "mis-naepery" in my heart. I had used NAEP results to reinforce my predetermined opinions.

As attacks on teachers became more vicious and as more bubble-in accountability was imposed on my students, of course, my anger towards the proselytizers in D.C hardened. That does not justify my recent feelings as I studied the recent NAEP results, and found myself rooting for confirmation of my viewpoint. I wish I could honestly say that when I read the news about NAEP increases in D.C. (and a couple of other reform strongholds) that my primary response was to say "congratulations."

We teachers have enough on our plates helping our students, fighting the cheaper, but equally dangerous knock-offs of D.C.'s IMPACT evaluation system, and working for humane and evidence-driven methods to improve our schools. We shouldn't waste our strength worrying about whether evidence that supports the accountability hawks is exaggerated or not.

We should not prejudge reformers as they have prejudged us. We teachers should be as fair and rigorous as possible in parsing evidence assuming that the Rhee generation will pass. The next generation of school improvement, we must hope, will become a partner, not an opponent, in improving schools.