DC School Reforms Demonstrate Lasting Impact on Student Achievement

DC School Reforms Demonstrate Lasting Impact on Student Achievement

Aug 12, 2021
School Governance Reforms

The suite of District of Columbia (DC) school reforms passed in 2007 appears to have contributed to improvements in math and reading assessment scores, especially for Black students, according to a new study released by Mathematica. The findings point to significant gains in student achievement, even when controlling for gentrification, with improvements in math persisting through grade 8.

The study provides the most comprehensive evidence to date of a causal connection between the reforms and students’ improved achievement. It analyzed student achievement data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) from the early 1990s to 2017. It also used advanced statistical methods to account for pre-reform differences between DC and other areas.

Several notable findings emerged:

  • DC’s reforms appear to have contributed to large improvements in grade 4 math and reading scores, the equivalent of about 0.3 standard deviations or 12 percentile points.
  • These gains in grade 4 were much larger than gentrification would explain, suggesting they represented real increases in student learning.
  • Similar gains in math persisted through grade 8, even after controlling for gentrification.
  • Impacts of the reforms on NAEP achievement in math were strongest for Black students.
  • Grade 8 reading gains were less strong, suggesting the grade 4 improvements corresponded to skills students could have gained later in the absence of reforms.
  • The impacts of DC’s reforms were similar in magnitude to those observed in New Orleans, which implemented major school reforms in 2006–2007, immediately after Hurricane Katrina. The scale of reforms was larger than for some well-known education interventions, such as the class size reductions in Tennessee and the Success for All program.

“The student achievement gains we found are very encouraging because they indicate DC’s school reforms not only had a positive impact on student achievement, but unlike many other reforms, these improvements were long lasting,” said Duncan Chaplin, principal researcher at Mathematica. “We hope this research provides school district leaders in the District of Columbia and other areas a better understanding of how much the reforms around accountability and public school options can connect to improve student learning,” he added.

Read the full report and accompanying research brief to learn more about how this study improved on past efforts to measure the impact of the DC reforms. These improvements included a more rigorous staff evaluation system, increased public school options, and a unified enrollment system for families residing in the District. Support from Arnold Ventures funded this study.