D.C. Public Schools are no longer the worst in the nation, according to standardized test scores released Tuesday comparing large urban districts.
But the reality remains grim. Fourth-graders rank fourth from the bottom, ahead of Cleveland, Detroit and Fresno, Calif., on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Eighth-graders ranked ahead only of their peers in Detroit.
"We are no longer last, so that is good news," said Chancellor Michelle Rhee, speaking with Mayor Adrian Fenty at Southeast's Sousa Middle School.
Though overall scores leave room for improvement, D.C. students outpaced the gains made by their urban peers nationwide. In 2009, DCPS was the only district to improve the average score at both grade levels by at least five points compared with 2007. Only two other cities have achieved similar results, and not since 2005.
Nationwide, fourth-grade public school students scored an average score of 239 on the 500-point test, compared with 220 for DCPS students. Eighth-graders scored 282 nationwide, compared with 251 among D.C. students.
Charter school students were not included in Tuesday's analysis, completed by the U.S. Department of Education, though they did take the tests in the spring. A spokesman for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools said charters outperformed DCPS at the eighth-grade level, but traditional schools outperformed charters among fourth-graders.
Rhee acknowledged "a foundation set before us" when she became chancellor in 2007, but claimed credit for the pace of gains over the past two years. Critics have chided her for claiming successes for which they don't believe she is responsible.
"In past years, though DCPS saw gains, they were on par with other cities' gains," Rhee said. Over the past two years, the gains were "out of step" with lagging competitors.
Rhee credited her administration's "focus on human capital" for helping to jump-start the progress.
The school system's Hispanic students saw the greatest improvements, with fourth-graders gaining eight points and eighth-graders jumping 15 points since 2007 -- the largest gain in the nation. Fourth- and eighth-grade black students both saw gains of four points.
Fenty downplayed the negative attention Rhee has received surrounding nearly 300 teacher firings in October.
"From what I hear from the people in D.C., they're extremely enthusiastic about the progress that's been made," Fenty said.