Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole at the Public Oversight Hearing on: Literacy and the NAEP and PARCC Assessments

Dec 7, 2022

Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. My name is Ariel Johnson and I am the Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates for the 46,000 public charter school students in the district. I am also a proud Ward 5 resident.

To get straight to the point, this year’s PARCC assessment was nothing short of humbling. No matter what role we play in the education ecosystem, none of us sought out this life’s work to fail our students. 85 percent of students designated “at risk” citywide aren’t proficient in reading, and 94 percent aren’t proficient in math. 85 percent of Black boys in the District are not proficient in reading, and nine out of 10 aren’t proficient in math. This is a crisis.

But, it’s a crisis rooted in systemic inequity, abject poverty, and lack of direct, tangible resources in the communities that need them the most. Statesman College Preparatory Academy for Boys CEO Shawn Hardnett said it best in his testimony last week. “The unrelenting impact of racist ideology and low expectations where these young men are concerned […] and the overwhelming impact of recalcitrant poverty” are at the root of this crisis. But, this is not new information. We know that when families don’t have their foundational needs met–housing, food security, and healthcare, it is nearly impossible to care at all about the future benefits of attending math class every day. However, none of this is acceptable. It’s not acceptable to me. It’s not acceptable to our school leaders, and as a sector, we’ve regrouped to act swiftly and strategically to get our students back on track.

Bright Spots

Let’s talk about a few of those strategies. Public charter schools in DC are showing that closing the equity gaps the pandemic widened is possible. For example, seven of the eight highest performing schools in Ward 8 are DC public charter schools, and 83 percent of “high at-risk” DC charter middle schools had a greater percentage of their students designated “at risk” achieve proficiency in math versus the District average. And, nine of the top 10 highest performing open enrollment high schools are charter schools.

There are numerous lessons to be learned from charter schools that are boldly performing above expected proficiency with students designated at-risk, students with disabilities, and students of color. EmpowerK12’s recent Bold Performance School Report, which highlighted nine DC charter schools (1), found that they relied on several key strategies to reach academic success. Some are strategies we’ve testified about previously, including deepening relationships between educators and students and their families and providing more opportunities for educators to improve their teaching. But these schools also used other critical levers like extended learning time opportunities for students, small-group interventions, and regular data and student-work analysis. But our schools need more resources to do this work.

What We Can Do About It

I want to share three concrete ways charter schools are responding, with support from the DC Alliance, and where we can use support from the Council and the City. First, we already have the key pillars for a strong framework to refine existing literacy plans and implement strategies to rapidly improve literacy rates, thanks to three initiatives from OSSE and the Council. That framework includes OSSE’s Comprehensive Literacy Plan, the Early Literacy Education Task Force, and the Addressing Dyslexia and Other Reading Difficulties Amendment Act of 2020 which requires phased-in shifts in literacy instruction and interventions. We are eager to work with OSSE, our school leaders, and other stakeholders to improve coordination among these initiatives.

We’re working to assist our LEAs to make sure they have the support they need to universally screen K-2 students and evaluate their reading curriculum to make sure it’s grounded in evidence-based practices and incorporates all elements of the science of reading. As required by law, we need OSSE to update their new guidance to include how to distinguish if an English language learner’s reading issue is because they have a reading difficulty or is associated with learning English as a second language. We also need OSSE to make adequate training resources available for K-2 teachers to both properly identify if a student has reading difficulties and provide appropriate interventions for students who need them.

Second, our leaders are very interested in learning from their peers what strategies and vendors they are using to address unfinished learning. We are collecting this information to share as a resource with all of our schools. What we’ve learned from our conversations so far is that many of our schools are focusing on making sure their staffing structure and master schedule allows them to support their students’ needs, which are identified on an ongoing basis using formative data.  For example, we found that one school whose students did particularly well with reading scores had hired an ELA interventionist to co-teach a class dedicated solely to reading. Another hired a learning recovery specialist who focuses specifically on implementing their school’s learning recovery interventions, including their learning recovery block and online platforms.

Finally, we must prioritize and resource student and staff wellness initiatives that create joyous learning environments and support flexible transportation options that make it easier for students to regularly attend school. We can’t help students become proficient in reading and math if they aren’t in the classroom. We must make it easier and more convenient for students to be in class every day, particularly our students with competing adult priorities like earning an income or caring for siblings or elders in the home.

Moving Forward

I want to end by stressing that this work will take every one of us – policymakers, school leaders, teachers, parents, students, and advocates – working with a deep sense of urgency every day. However, we were aware that it would take three to five years to recover from the pandemic, and we have to understand that test scores aren’t going to rise overnight. Improving academic outcomes for students requires sustained work over multiple years. And it requires ongoing resources to support that work – especially as federal pandemic funding that has allowed schools to afford interventions runs out in 2024. The DC Alliance will continue to work alongside the city, the Council, and in partnership with our amazing educators to ensure academic recovery and holistic growth for all students.

Thank you for your time and attention, and I welcome your questions.

(1) Empower K12. 2022 DC Bold Performance Schools Report. Center City Congress Heights ES/MS; Washington Global MS; Roots ES; KIPP DC Legacy College Prep HS; Digital Pioneers HS; Paul MS; Cesar Chavez MS/HS; Friendship Southeast ES; Bridges ES.