Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Ken Archer

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 

Test scores are not improving for at-risk student groups

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the system's 2014 test scores yesterday, saying "we're continuing on an upward trajectory." However, a closer look at the scores reveals a stagnant or downward trajectory for black, Hispanic, low-income, English language learner, and special education students in the last five years.


Reading scores have declined among at-risk groups since 2009. Graph from DCPS with emphasis by the author.

It's true that reading test scores overall have increased since 2009, and slightly overall since last year. However, it's a different story for many demographic subgroups, including every at-risk subgroup: students receiving free or reduced price lunch (FARMS), black students, Latino students, special education students, and students whose first language is not English (called "English Language Learners"). For those students, scores have declined since 2009 and further since last year.

Math scores are mixed among at-risk subgroups since 2009

While reading scores have declined since 2009 among all at-risk subgroups, math scores look better.

Black and Hispanic students have gained on average since 2009, though white students have gained even more. Lower-income (FARMS) students and special education students gained slightly, while English language learners lost considerable ground.

The achievement gap is widening

The decline among at-risk subgroups, along with gains among white and Asian students, has widened the achievement gap in DC. The every-other-year federal test, NAEP, reports the gap between students eligible and not eligible for free and reduced price lunch.


2013 Department of Education report of 8th grade NAEP test scores with emphasis by the author.

However, this gap is nowhere in the 2014 CAS score reports by the Office for the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) or by DCPS. The Department said the following about this achievement gap in its most recent report on DC NAEP scores.

In 2013, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an average score that was 31 points lower than students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 1998 (25 points).
What does this mean for reform policies?

Can we draw any conclusions about DCPS's reform efforts from this data?

Scores did increase substantially in reading as well as math from 2007 to 2009, and are still above 2007 levels in all categories. DC Public Schools (DCPS) officials argue that 2007 should be the baseline (and therefore we should consider their reforms a success) because mayoral control of DCPS began in 2007.

However, the IMPACT teacher evaluation system went into effect in 2009. The first round of DCPS school closures was announced in the spring of 2008, and implemented over the next two years, well after students had taken the 2008 CAS test.

Most students taking the CAS tests in the spring of 2007, 2008 or 2009 were still unaffected by the IMPACT system or by school closures.

On the other hand, it may still be too early to judge the effects of any particular reform. Still, we must ask, how long will it take to know for sure?

Is DCPS really "on an upward trajectory"? If DC's education system is slowly growing but not for those groups where public education is most likely to make or break success in life, it is not doing its job.

Many Silver Line riders have no way to safely reach their offices

Tysons now has four Metro stations, but workers trying to get from those stations to nearby offices often have no choice but to cross wide, high-speed roads without any crosswalks.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

I saw several Tysons Corner workers walking across streets with up to 9 lanes of traffic in order to take the Silver Line this morning, due to the continued lack of crosswalks in Tysons. It's a matter of time before a Silver Line rider is struck by a car in Tysons Corner.

At the Tysons Corner station, the entrance north of Route 123 (the side with most of the offices) is on the west side of Tysons Blvd between 123 and Galleria Drive. There's no legal way to walk east on Galleria Drive, because there are no crosswalks on the south or east side of the intersection of Tysons Blvd and Galleria Drive.


There are no crosswalks from Tysons Corner station for workers walking east along Galleria Drive. Base map from Google Maps.

Many Silver Line riders therefore walked across nine lanes of traffic on Tysons Boulevard.


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by the author.

My company's office is at 7900 Westpark Drive along with dozens of other tech companies. The main topic of conversation around the office this morning was the safest places to jaywalk to get to the Silver Line.

I've endured the lack of crosswalks in Tysons Corner for years as a pedestrian, but assumed that Fairfax County would add crosswalks before the Silver Line began operation. The county needs to create safe pedestrian pathways immediately, rather than waiting until someone gets hurt or killed.

We're moving to California because DC schools can't or won't serve our son's special needs

This summer my family is moving to San Francisco so that my disabled son can attend kindergarten. While we are excited about the next chapter of our lives in the Bay Area, we expected until recently to live in DC, and in Georgetown, the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, that plan changed when we ran into obstruction and hostility from DC Public Schools and local private schools regarding our son's special needs.


Photo by Christopher Chan on Flickr.

My 5-year-old son, Martin, is the joy of our lives. He is the sweetest little boy you will ever meet, with a passion for life that inspires me every day. Martin also has epilepsy.

In the past year, Martin has had over 2,500 seizures. Most of them are drop seizures, in which he drops to the ground like a puppet whose strings are cut. After every drop seizure, he gets right back up and resiliently soldiers oncoloring, playing with toys, eating his food, undeterred.

When the seizures began breaking through his medication last year, my wife and I spent every evening on our laptops, immersing ourselves in pediatric neurology. Helping our boy fight seizures was our primary activity, at least it was until we discovered how much we would have to fight DC Public Schools to secure his rights to an equal education.

Coping with epilepsy

Martin has miraculously not regressed cognitively despite his seizures, but must be kept safe. He has had drop seizures in which his face collides into his cereal bowl during breakfast, into the toilet bowl while going to the bathroom, into the sand table while playing at his preschool.

After several bloody and bruised faces, we made the difficult decision to put a helmet with face guard on our boy. Even with his helmet, he is still not safe on stairs, which pose a real risk to his life and limb.

Martin attends an amazing preschool, St, Columba's Nursery School in Tenleytown, whose teachers unflinchingly provide him any accommodation needed to keep him safe and help him learn with the other children. They go far beyond what the law requires.

This past year, we asked DC Public Schools (DCPS) for an Individual Education Plan (IEP) ahead of his entrance into kindergarten this fall.

An IEP is a list of the accommodations that a public school provides to ensure a child's civil right to equal access to the curriculum. A federal law, the 1975 Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), protects the civil right of children with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

DCPS, through its Early Stages division, initially committed to including a dedicated aide in Martin's IEP to keep him safe. They were unable to put him in a building without stairs. Instead, an aide would hold his hand on the stairs or take him to elevators, as well as logging his seizure count and caring for him when he injures himself.

"Martin will obviously get an aide; he's dropping 10 times per day," was the assessment of our IEP team lead. "Just give us a letter from his neurologist, and we'll include an aide in his IEP." We provided letters from two neurologists, and expected to send Martin to DCPS kindergarten this fall.

DCPS throws up a wall

Two weeks after our IEP meeting at DCPS Early Stages, I received a startling call from our IEP team lead that would signal the beginning of the end of our time as DC residents. "I'm so sorry to have to tell you, apparently we were not authorized to put an aide in Martin's IEP. So we've taken it out."

She was unable to explain why Martin's IEP team couldn't give him an aide. She said to me, "I wish I had answers to your questions. I'm so sorry." When I pointed out that, by law, only members of an IEP team can determine what accommodations go into an IEP, she agreed, and repeated, "I'm so, so sorry."

A week later I received a call from Amanda Parks-Bianco, a DCPS special education administrator who manages all dedicated aides, asking me what my questions were. Parks-Bianco said, "Dedicated aides and nurses are never needed to provide FAPE. If you accept our offer of FAPE, then aides and nurses are additional services that your child may qualify for."

When I cited several court decisions stating that IDEA does sometimes require dedicated aides, she insisted that "IDEA is vague." Several times Parks-Bianco told me, "I know I must sound like a horrible person."

Private schools give the cold shoulder too

My wife and I retained an attorney, who advised us to find a private school that would keep Martin safe. We would then sue DCPS to pay the tuition. However, we were unable to find a general education private school in DC that would accept a child with uncontrolled seizures.

For example, we visited Lowell, known as one of the most inclusive private schools in town. When we mentioned to the Head of School that our son has 10 drop seizures per day, her response was, "You would need to purchase tuition insurance." She then explained that "a school with a smaller student-teacher ratio might be better, with more eyes on your son to keep him safe."

The Lowell Head of School never technically violated the federal law against discrimination towards those with disabilities, but made it clear that my child was not welcome at her school.

We visited Sheridan, also known as an inclusive private school. While they said they embraced children with disabilities, their building is still not ADA-compliant, requiring children of all ages to walk up and down a long staircase with no elevator. When we noticed the facilities they had invested in, such as a campus in the Shenandoah Valley, their true priorities seemed clear.

We considered suing DCPS to accommodate my child with an aide to keep him safe at school, a suit that our attorney said we had a 95% chance of winning. But he also said we would likely have to retain counsel multiple times over the years, as DCPS would try to remove the aide from Martin's IEP.

My wife and I were considering moving to California last fall in order to try a strain of medical marijuana that had helped other children control their seizures. A friend from San Francisco had been urging me to consider schools there that were inclusive of children with disabilities.

In March, I flew to San Francisco, and within a month enrolled Martin in a private school that embraces children with disabilities and was committed to keeping our son safe. Even our special education attorney recommended that we accept the offer of the school in San Francisco.

My family is privileged to have the means to move when our son's civil rights are denied and physical safety threatened by DC Public Schools. DC is full of thousands of special education students who face the obstacles our son faced and have far fewer options.

How can DC be a truly inclusive city?

While we are sad to leave our adopted hometown of 16 years, we are excited to embark on a new journey. We feel deep gratitude to the Bay Area for its inclusive culture, and hope to give back in spades.

One of the hardest parts of leaving DC, besides the friends we leave behind, is walking away from the fight to make DC a just city whose success is shared broadly. As DC's amenities have grown over the past decade, so have the growing gaps in wealth and educational outcomes in our city. This creates a moral imperative to advocate that we can either hide from or accept.

It's easy for elected officials in DC and other east cost cities to promote the influx of new residents, then take credit for the improved joblessness numbers and school test scores that inevitably follow.

My deepest fear for DC has been that in 30 years, all 8 wards will have stellar economic and education numbers, but those numbers will be the result of turning over half the population in the city.

There are few battles more critical to creating an inclusive DC than the fight for the 13,000 students, predominantly poor, who receive public special education.

DC can move forward in one of two waysby displacing DC's recipients of special education, or including them.

Private school says it could have taken over troubled special needs charter if it had been asked earlier

A troubled DC charter school for kids with special needs will stay open for one more year under the management of a court-appointed receiver. But a private DC-area school with experience in special education could have taken over the school if it had been contacted earlier, according to an official at the school.


Photo from Options Public Charter School

The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) voted yesterday to allow Options PCS, which had been threatened with closure after DC sued its former managers for self-dealing, to remain open through the end of the next school year. A court-appointed receiver, Josh Kern, will continue to oversee Options and plans to hire an executive director to manage day-to-day operations.

Kern founded and served as the leader of a high-performing charter school, Thurgood Marshall Academy, but he has never managed a special education program before.

When asked if the PCSB had approached any private schools about operating Options, PCSB official Tami Lewis said that the agency's staff had "made considerable effort" to do that, but that several schools had "indicated they were not ready to take on so quickly the responsibility of managing a whole school."

But an official with the local private school, where many DC public schools place special needs students they cannot serve adequately, contends that the school could have operated Options next year if the PCSB had raised the possibility earlier. The official says the PCSB approached the school only recently.

Lisa Ott, executive director of DCASE, an organization that represents several private special education schools, said her group was approached on February 10, and that it would have had to submit a charter application by PCSB's deadline of March 3. "We stand ready to assist in the transition and in the long term solution," Ott said. "If they had reached out to us earlier in the process, we could be doing that right now."

In January the PCSB approached DCPS about operating Options, which serves a low-income student body with severe special needs. But those talks recently fell apart, and DCPS says its neighborhood schools lack the ability to serve Options students.

PCSB Executive Director Scott Pearson told the DC Council in January that the PCSB was trying to determine the future of Options by working with OSSE, DCPS, other charter schools, and a charter special education cooperative. He made no mention of private special education schools.

Private placement

Another possibility for Options students would have been to place them with private schools that cater to students with special needs.

That suggestion came up at a DC Council hearing in January. Councilmembers Tommy Wells and David Catania pressed PCSB officials on the need to consider private placements for Options students whose special needs cannot be accommodated at the school.

"We may just have to get the money from the PCSB budget to pay for these private placements," Catania told PCSB officials.

Under federal law, public schools that cannot fully accommodate the needs of a student with medical or learning disabilities are required to enroll the student in a private school. Public schools typically negotiate tuition rates with private schools, but the rates commonly exceed what the DC government spends on such students, about $29,000 per year.

During the last school year about 1,000 DC students were placed in private special education schools, or about 9% of all students with special needs in both traditional public schools and charters.

One of Mayor Vincent Gray's goals has been to cut the number of the private placements in half. At a DC Council hearing on special education last year, several parents and advocates questioned how the city was achieving this goal. City officials claim they are expanding special education capacity in public schools.

The possibility of private placements for Options students has not been discussed in public charter board meetings and court hearings, according to the Washington Post.

While Gray has spoken of how much money DC has saved through reducing private placements, Tami Lewis of the PCSB said that cost was not an issue in determining how to handle the Options situation. Lewis told the Post that the quality of private schools serving students with disabilities is uneven.

"I think there's almost this fantasy that if we put these children in non-publics, it would be a magic pill," Lewis told the Post. "That is not the case."

In response, Ott, from the non-public advocacy group DCASE, told me, "There are a number of non-publics that serve this very population and serve them well, students with these very disabilities."

Few private placements at Options

At Options, the rate of private placement for students needing special education was only about 1% last year (two out of 241 eligible students), far lower than the District average of 9%. (Figures appear on p. 1097 of the linked document.)

In their 2011-2012 annual report, Options told its board that it had received a financial award from OSSE in recognition of its low private placement rate.

Generally, parents hire lawyers to secure private placements for their children. But the low-income families at Options may not be able to afford to do that.

Linda Tompkins, a former Options PTA board member, said that most Options students do not have parents who can advocate for their needs and rights. Most are raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles, foster parents, or a single parent with no time to learn about federal special education law.

Under that law, public schools, including charters, must inform a student's parents or caregivers of their right to private placement during an annual review of the student's Individual Education Plans (IEP).

But earlier this year OSSE found that Options had failed to review the IEPs of more than 100 of its 241 special education students for over 3 years, according to an education official familiar with the situation. As a result, the school would not have informed the parents or caregivers of their rights to a private placement.

One disadvantage of keeping Options open only one year longer is that it makes it hard to hire and retain teachers. In January Kern complained at a DC Council hearing of an exodus of teachers. Now that it's clear the school will close at the end of the next school year, it will be difficult to hire experienced replacements.

Where is the DC tech hub? It keeps moving

DC officials are trying hard to woo technology companies to DC, and one strategy to do that is to establish a place in the city with a critical mass of tech jobs. But the location officials say they are focusing on keeps moving.


Photo by Danja Vasiliev on Flickr.

Before 2002, DC offered a tax break to high tech companies, as long as they located in one of multiple "high tech development zones." Those encompassed the majority of land in the city, but excluded a lot of DC west of Rock Creek Park, some lower-density neighborhoods along the Maryland border in the north and northeast, and a few other areas.

In 2012, Mayor Gray pushed for legislation that removed these boundaries and let tech companies anywhere in the city get the tax breaks. Around the same time, Gray announced plans to turn St. Elizabeths East Campus into an Innovation Hub that would "stimulate formation of a technology cluster." The administration reached out to many universities and companies like Microsoft about establishing a significant presence there.

Then, in 2013, the administration invested $380,000 in a new coworking and incubator space, 1776, at 15th and M Street NW. Many small new businesses will definitely want to locate downtown even if and when there is a thriving tech center at St. E's, and St. Elizabeths is far from ready to be a center of tech jobs.


Left: Former "high tech development zones." Image from Google Maps with data from GeoCommons. Right: Locations of St. Elizabeths, 1776, and the Digital DC Tech Corridor. Image from Google Maps.

But last month, the Gray administration announced a new initiative, the Digital DC Tech Corridor, which runs along 7th Street and Georgia Avenue from New York Avenue downtown to Kansas Avenue in Petworth.

A new Digital DC Tech Fund offered venture funding to startups, so long as they locate in this corridor. This is the opposite of the earlier move to eliminate the requirement that tech companies locate within a "tech zone" to qualify for incentives. Georgia Avenue is also a part of the city that could benefit from new jobs and economic growth, but it seemed odd to have a fund that specifically targets one area that's totally different from the other two.

Tech startups in 1776 will not qualify for these grants. Neither will those in the Innovation Hub at St Elizabeth's, nor those at private tech startup hubs like The Hive in Anacostia or Canvas in Dupont Circle. District Cap Table pointed out how the new tech corridor misses the many existing incubator and coworking spaces:


Image from District Cap Table.

Finally, earlier this week and just before the Democratic Primary where the mayor is struggling to win renomination, he announced plans to build a $300 million hospital at St Elizabeths East Campus. This is a completely new idea that's nowhere in the 5-Year Economic Development Plan for St Elizabeths East, and doesn't seem that compatible with the walkable tech hub previous plans envision.

This isn't to say the city has to pick just one and only one spot within the entire District for tech jobs and only focus on that. There will be different kinds of tech companies that might want different sizes of office space, want to be near other companies of a certain type, and have workers who live in different parts of the city.

But all of these changesto remove a specific zone for incentives and then add one, to announce one tech hub, then create another, and change plansis creating whiplash. The city can only create and un-create so many tech hubs before tech policy looks more like a political football than a serious strategy to diversify our tax base beyond the federal government.

Data, data all around, but not the test data we need

We appear to be awash in school performance data. But the data we have in DC can't answer some crucial questions about how much students are actually learning.


Photo by Alberto G. on Flickr.

Teachers who want to know how much they have helped their students learn can't tell that from looking at DC's standardized test scores. But other states are using their test data to help teachers answer that question. The secret, testing experts say, is reporting how much each student has grown academically rather than just whether she's achieved a measure of grade-level "proficiency."

Questions that DC testing data can't answer

  1. How much did a student grow from one year to the next?
  2. It may be surprising to many, but DC test data cannot answer this question. For teachers like Dunbar High School math teacher David Tansey, that makes the data far less useful.

    "If all I know is that a student isn't on grade level, that doesn't give me much information, " he says.

    DC only reports the proficiency levelsBelow Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advancedfor students and groups of students. Teachers are told how close students are to each level.

    Tansey says he would like to know how much each of his students have grown academically from one year to the next. But without growth metrics, he only knows if they've moved from one proficiency level to the next. If they've grown but haven't changed levels, he has no way of capturing that information.

  3. How much value does a school add to its students' growth above what parents provide?
  4. Many parents feel that they invest a lot in their kids outside of school. They would like to see which schools add the most value on top of what they contribute.

    But no DC test score can tell them that right now. A particular type of growth metric, known as value added, does measure precisely this factor. With value added growth scores, parents could see if a school is good at improving the academic achievement of a child like theirs.

  5. Was a particular student's growth enough for him to move toward, or cross into, proficiency?
  6. Colorado testing experts Dr Jody Ernst and Richard Wenning say a central question is "How much growth is enough?" The Denver public school system has found an answer. It's actually adopted the accountability framework developed by Denver's charter authorizer because of its sophisticated growth metrics.

    Denver's School Performance Framework, or SPF, reports 7 different growth metrics for schools, including whether they are advancing lagging students at a pace fast enough to be proficient before graduation.

  7. Is teaching strategy A more effective at advancing lagging students than strategy B? Is teaching strategy C more effective at growing advanced students than strategy D?
  8. Dunbar's Tansey says he can't use DC test scores for feedback because they only provide precise measurements for students who are on grade level. He says that DC's test reporting gives him no credit for advancing a 10th-grader from a 6th-grade to a 9th-grade math level, and it doesn't even give him feedback on whether he's succeeded in doing this.
The secret is the vertical range of tests

That's because DC's current standardized test, the DC CAS, only assesses whether students are on a certain level. Testing experts refer to this as the vertical range of the test. In the case of DC CAS, its vertical range is a single grade level.

The Office for the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), which oversees standardized testing in DC, has been planning to adopt tests from the PARCC consortium to assess students against Common Core standards next year. PARCC's vertical range is also a single grade level.

But many states are using tests from the other Common Core testing consortium, Smarter Balanced, which has a vertical range of three grade levels. Smarter Balanced tests can have a greater range because they are given on computers that adapt the test to the student's level of ability. The answer to one question determines the difficulty of the next question posed.

OSSE officials had intended to hold "a series of stakeholder discussions" on which test to use before making a decision this month, but according to an account of a meeting reported on Greater Greater Education, they decided not to do so after hearing opposition from DCPS. Some charter operators, such as KIPP and Friendship PCS, have said they prefer Smarter Balanced.

Dunbar's Tansey says he is going to testify at tonight's meeting of the DC Board of Education, which includes a discussion of PARCC on its agenda. The meeting is at 6:30 pm at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Most DC schools aren't serving special needs kids the way they're supposed to

Most public school operators in DC fail to meet the requirements of federal special education law, according to information recently released by DC officials. We've got a list of schools and their ratings.


Photo by DCPS.

Every year, the federal government requires all states and the District of Columbia to assess how well public schools are implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which specifies the services special-needs students are entitled to. Recently, in response to my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the DC agency that oversees IDEA released those ratings for the first time.

The ratings, or "determinations," that were released are based on data for the 2010-11 school year, along with cover letters to each school dated last year. The documents show that DCPS, which for this purpose includes a number of DC charter schools, narrowly missed a determination that would have required the DC agency to withhold funds or take legal action.

The federal Department of Education [DOE] has designated the District "high risk" in its compliance with IDEA for 7 straight years, longer than any state. There are approximately 12,000 children in DC public schools who require special education services, according to the DOE. About 7,400 of them are in DCPS, with the rest in charter schools.

The DC agency charged with IDEA oversight, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), makes determinations of school operators, known as Local Education Agencies (LEAs), not of individual schools. An LEA is any entity that operates one or more public schools. You can find a list of all the LEA's and their percentage scores at the end of this post.

Some LEAs, like DCPS, operate many schools, while others, like Yu Ying, operate only one school. Charters have the option of choosing DCPS for their LEA. Few have done so, although one that has, KIPP DC, serves over 3,500 students at 12 campuses. The primary consequence of the decision is that DCPS is ultimately accountable for their special education compliance and disburses their federal special education funding.

OSSE assigns each LEA one of four determinations. In the documents OSSE released, no LEA received the lowest determination, "Needs Substantial Intervention." But DCPS received the second-lowest determination, "Needs Intervention." And its rating of 42%, the lowest of any LEA, is only 2 percentage points away from the lowest determination, which would have required OSSE to recover or withhold federal special education funding or refer DCPS for legal enforcement action.

DCPS' rating is based on non-compliance with various indicators. For example, OSSE gave DCPS zero out of a possible 2 points after finding that less than 75% of student files were in compliance with accommodations required by IDEA, based on a random sample of files.

OSSE also found that DCPS had a "disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic groups in specific disability categories that is the result of inappropriate identification."

Because the findings don't distinguish between the different schools included in the DCPS LEA, it's hard to know how they reflect on the charter schools that are part of it.

In addition to DCPS, two other LEAs received the "Needs Intervention" rating, Perry Street Prep and Community Academy. OSSE may also withhold federal funding for LEAs that receive this determination for 3 consecutive years.

The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) voted last month to close the Perry Street high school, though not the middle and elementary schools, citing a "disturbingly high number of findings" of noncompliance with IDEA. The PCSB voted to make Community Academy a candidate for closure in late 2011, but then chose to keep it open in 2012.

For each LEA, OSSE issues a three-part report including data that parents of special education students will likely be interested to read before selecting a school. Below is the list of LEAs that were evaluated, along with their determinations and percentage scores. For the full reports, click here and navigate to a particular LEA.

The folder for each LEA contains three documents: a cover letter; "Enclosure 1" which defines the indicators that OSSE measured; and "Enclosure 2," which rates the LEA against each indicator. The total percentage for each LEA is the sum of points it received based on its level of compliance with each indicator. The cover letters set out steps that each LEA needs to take to address deficiencies.

Meets Requirements

  • Yu Ying - 100%
  • Mundo Verde - 100%
  • Two Rivers - 95%
  • LAMB - 94%
  • Achievement Prep - 94%
  • Briya - 90%
  • Washington Latin - 89%
  • Bridges - 89%
  • Shining Stars Montessori - 87%
  • Mary McLeod - 85%
  • Elsie Whitlow Stokes - 84%
  • National Collegiate Prep - 83%
  • Potomac Lighthouse - 82%
Needs Assistance
  • Inspired Teaching - 80%
  • Seed - 78%
  • DC Prep - 77%
  • Friendship - 76%
  • Options - 74%
  • Maya Angelou -74%
  • Capital City - 74%
  • Howard University Middle - 73%
  • Eagle Academy - 73%
  • Apple Tree Early Learning - 71%
  • DC Bilingual - 71%
  • Imagine Hope Community - 71%
  • Excel Academy - 71%
  • Integrated Design Electronics Academy - 68%
  • Meridian - 67%
  • Arts & Technology - 65%
  • Cedar Tree - 64%
  • Imagine Southeast - 63%
  • Washington Math Science & Technology - 61%
  • Tree of Life - 61%
Needs Intervention
  • Perry Street Prep - 53%
  • Community Academy - 52%
  • DC Public Schools - 42%

Car-free family trip idea: Baltimore

If you have young children and don't own a car or just don't like driving, you know what a pain weekend trips can be. With the new weekend MARC service to Baltimore, Charm City can be a fun family car-free trip, especially when the weather calls for indoor activities.


Photo by Kevin Labianco on Flickr.

I've taken my 5-year-old son to Baltimore for car-free weekends about 6 times, and he is always asking to go again. It's easily done without the hassle of a car, because most attractions are within easy walking distance of the Inner Harbor.

Getting there and back

You can take the Amtrak or MARC trains 7 days per week between Union Station and Baltimore's Penn Station. The Amtrak Northeast Regional runs between the two stations with tickets as low as $12 and takes 40 minutes. The MARC Penn Line does the same trip in an hour for only $7.00 and now runs 9 trains each way on Saturdays and 6 on Sundays. You can also spend $70 per ticket on the Acela and arrive in only 28 minutes.

My son and I either take an afternoon train on Friday afternoon in time to get him in bed in a hotel on time, or an early morning Saturday train. Kids love trains, of course, and it's wonderful to arrive without the stress of driving.

When you get to Penn Station, you need to take a bus to the Inner Harbor, which is probably where your hotel and activities are. Baltimore has a Circulator bus just like DC, but theirs is free, which is nice. It's called the Charm City Circulator, and the Purple Line runs between Penn Station and the harbor every 10-15 minutes.

The Circulator will take you down the west side of the Harbor. If you are headed to Harbor East, which is where we usually stay, you can either transfer onto the Orange Line or impress your family by taking the local Maryland Transit Administration bus directly from Penn Station to Harbor East. Check out bus directions on Google Maps on your phone and you'll find the next 11 bus running every 30 minutes between Penn Station and Harbor East. Have $1.60 ready per passenger, including kids.

Where to stay

Inner Harbor accommodations can get pricey, but we've found a fantastic hotel option. The Homewood Suites in Harbor East is situated in between all the kids' activities, and has a kiddie pool inside. A large, good breakfast is included.

It's an all-suite hotel, which is a nice perk allowing parents to relax after kids go to sleep. Advance reservations start at $170/night, while same-week reservations start at $189/night. If you're flexible, they drop prices the day before your trip when the hotel isn't filling up, and I've paid as little as $120 as a result.

What to do

There are three big things for kids to do in the Inner Harbor: the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Port Discovery Children's Museum. Here's our time-tested routine.

We arrive Saturday morning, and after taking the Purple Line Circulator bus to Pratt Street, we walk down to Miss Shirley's for lunch. Your kids will love the kids meals in giant bento boxes, and you'll love the crab cake fried green tomatoes eggs benedict.

It may seem like the only restaurants in the Inner Harbor are chains, but there are fantastic local restaurants as well. You just have to head to the east side of the Harbor to find them.

After lunch, we head to the Port Discovery Children's Museum, which is right behind Miss Shirley's. Port Discovery is awesome, and will help your kids get their wiggles out after sitting on the train and a bus.

After the Children's Museum we walk to the Homewood Suites Harbor East, which is an easy 10 minute walk. If we have time, we stop by Vaccaro's Italian Pastry in Little Italy for ice cream, which is right on the way.

We have a little resting time in the hotel, then walk back into Little Italy to get a pizza at Isabella's Pizza, the best pizza in Little Italy.

After a good night's sleep, we wake up Sunday morning and have breakfast in the hotel before headed to the hotel kiddie pool. The big decision to make is whether to then head to the Aquarium or the Science Museum.

The National Aquarium is a very pleasant walk over a couple wooden bridges from Harbor East, away from the tourists on the west and north sides of the harbor. At $35 for adults and $22 for kids under 12, it's a pricey attraction but worth the money if your kid is old enough to really take it in.

Don't head to the aquarium for dolphin shows, because those ended in 2012. By allowing all visitors to observe dolphins in an interactive space designed for dolphins, the Aquarium was able to ensure everyone can see them.

My son likes the Maryland Science Center more than the Aquarium, so we usually go there, which is nice because it costs just $19 for adults and $16 for kids under 13. He could spend hours in the interactive Kids Room.

And any trip across the harbor, like we take from Harbor East to the Science Center, is better taken on the Baltimore Water Taxi. After a long day at the museum, we hop on the Purple Line Circulator back to Penn Station to take the train back to Union Station.

People often tell me it must be great to raise a kid in DC with so many museums. But I've wondered why all neighboring East Coast cities like Philadelphia and Richmond have both a top-tier children's museum and science museum, and DC has neither. That's why it's great to have Baltimore within such an easy reach.

Know any other car-free family trip destinations? Mention them in the comments. You can also read about Harpers Ferry for a car-free family trip.

There's a test that may give us a clearer picture of student growth, but DCPS is reluctant to consider it

Next year DC students will be taking new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core. Some are urging education officials to adopt a test that will provide a more accurate measure of student growth, but DCPS is reluctant, saying the switch might undermine confidence.


Photo by Duncan Hull on Flickr.

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) recently suggested considering a Common-Core-aligned test that would enable it to measure student growth more precisely than the assessment it's currently planning to use. According to the minutes of a recent meeting, however, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson objected because the teachers' union and the public might see the switch as an opening to attack the concept of the Common Core and testing in general.

DCPS Chief of Data and Strategy Pete Weber disputed OSSE's characterization, saying in a statement they were "surprised" OSSE wanted to consider switching tests and that such a switch would "undermine the confidence we have worked so hard to build" in all stakeholders, including unions.

DC, along with a number of states, is currently scheduled to replace its local standardized tests with tests created by the PARCC consortium in the spring of 2015. OSSE made that decision several years ago. PARCC is one of two organizations that are preparing standardized tests to assess students on the basis of the Common Core standards.

Some other states have chosen to use tests from the second consortium, Smarter Balanced. Unlike the PARCC test, the Smarter Balanced test is "computer-adaptive," meaning that the questions change depending on a student's level of ability. Many advocates believe the promise of data-driven school quality and accountability hinges on the ability to measure student growth in this way.

The tests being created by PARCC are similar to the local test, the DC CAS, in that there is a different test for each grade. Because the different tests can't be compared, they don't measure a student's actual growth from year to year. Instead we have to settle for a measure known as percent proficiency.

(PARCC disputes this characterization of their test. See update below.)

We hold schools accountable by comparing different groups of students from year to year based on the percent who achieve a designated proficiency score. That makes it difficult to determine whether gains in test scores are due to improvements in student achievement or to gentrification and rising incomes, since more affluent students generally get higher scores on standardized tests.

Last year 39 DC education activists, including myself, signed a letter arguing for a switch to computer-adaptive assessments that measure student growth, like the tests being developed by Smarter Balanced.

A computer-adaptive test can determine that an 8th-grader has a 4th-grade reading level and provide questions geared to that student's level. It can also identify a student performing above grade level and determine how advanced that student is.

The PARCC test, on the other hand, is a "fixed-form" test, with a set number of unchanging items. It can work well for assessing students who are on grade level, but experts say it doesn't do a good job of measuring the knowledge of students at one extreme or the other. Many students in DC's high-poverty schools perform below grade level.

Advocates of computer-adaptive testing say it equips teachers with individualized data about each student's growth. Teachers and schools that struggle with low-income populations would finally get credit if they advance their students' performance, whether or not the advancement moves them to a designated proficiency level.

Discussion at OSSE meeting

On February 3rd, OSSE officials met with representatives from 3 charter networks and an unnamed DCPS official. In testimony before the DC Council, State Superintendent Jesus Aguirre identified the official as Chancellor Henderson.

Those present at the meeting discussed testing alternatives, among other topics. Minutes of the meeting that were recorded by an OSSE official were provided to Greater Greater Education and were confirmed as being accurate by a charter representative who was at the meeting.

According to the minutes, "OSSE discussed their intentions to engage in a series of stakeholder discussions with regards to the choice of common core next generation assessments available to the District. OSSE stated that it will make a public decision by March 3rd."

The minutes record that a representative from KIPP DC said that "PARCC will be a disaster," in KIPP's view. But Henderson stated "that they [DCPS] remain committed to PARCC." The minutes go on to explain Henderson's concerns.

DCPS is concerned that switching or publicly contemplating a switch will make the District look "wishy-washy", and is concerned that a switch would be a moment of weakness that the unions may capitalize on to argue against common core and assessments in general.
Henderson's concern about union opposition appears misplaced, given that Washington Teachers Union president Elizabeth Davis signed the letter from education activists supporting a move to computer-adaptive testing and growth metrics.

DCPS Data Chief Pete Weber replied in a statement that OSSE's minutes do "not capture DCPS' concerns related to PARCC".

As an organization, we continually work to build confidence in our staff, parents, teachers, union stakeholders, and students. We are worried that making changes in assessments without a clearly articulated reason for making those changes will undermine the confidence we have worked so hard to build. We have repeatedly expressed these concerns to the OSSE and it is unfortunate that they did not provide full context for our concerns in discussing our beliefs.
Weber went on to list several steps that show they "have already invested heavily in time and resources that are specific to PARCC," including teacher training and technology procurement. He also said that "the OSSE has not been able to articulate a specific reason to make a change now," and that DCPS has consulted "national experts" who "have echoed our opinion that there is no new information at this time to inspire a change in decision."

Problems with fixed-form tests

The activists identified several problems caused by static assessments like DC CAS and PARCC.

  • Without growth metrics on a student level, teachers and principals can't see when students begin to slip in their performance and target their interventions accordingly.
  • Teachers know which students are closest to the percent proficiency bar, and are strongly incentivized to focus on those students over others. Extensive research has confirmed that static metrics can lead to this result. It's known as "parking," because students whose scores are far from the next rung on the ladder are "parked" while others are advanced.
  • A teacher who works hard to move a 10th-grader from a 5th- to an 8th-grade reading level gets no credit for this achievement. In fact, focusing on such students may actually result in a loss of compensation.
  • Until we have growth metrics, we don't know which schools and which classrooms are actually adding value and which ones are simply benefiting from rising average incomes of families in DC.
Some PARCC advocates claim that its more traditional fixed-form model does allow for growth metrics, albeit with broader margins of error than computer-adaptive testing. And PARCC Director of Policy Jeff Nellhaus says Smarter Balanced is using the greater number of questions available on its tests to more precisely measure students who are on grade level, not to ask students questions geared to different grade levels.

However, an official with the Educational Testing Service, Nancy Doorey, was more cautious. In an email, Doorey said that ETS will "need to see the results of the field tests before they can determine whether [the PARCC] approach will suffice."

So far, OSSE has held no public hearings on which type of test to use, and neither has DC's State Board of Education. The CEO of PARCC, Laura Slover, is also the Ward 3 representative to the DC State Board of Education, though she has recused herself during discussions of PARCC.

Shying away from a conversation about the testing options makes no sense. And while DCPS may have invested in preparing teachers, students, and the public for PARCC, that doesn't justify sticking to a decision if it's the wrong one. The best approach, and the one that is fairest to students, is to have a discussion that provides the public with an opportunity to compare all "next generation" testing methods.

Update: PARCC officials dispute the characterization of their test, saying that they will report a growth metric using data from fixed form tests. According to Communications Director David Connerty-Marin, "PARCC does not compare proficiency from one year to the next as a way of measuring growth. There are a number of accepted ways it can be done. One is to chart where a student is expected to be based on two or three years of test data and then see how the student does compared to that expectation. There are other methods, too, that are more than simply a comparison of proficiency scores."

Most mayoral challengers oppose reducing parking minimums

At a forum last month, four candidates for DC mayor argued against a proposal by the Office of Planning to relax minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas of the city. Andy Shallal and Tommy Wells didn't address it directly, though Shallal argued for more parking capacity while Wells argued for reducing parking demand.

The Office of Planning (OP) is proposing changes to the zoning code that would let property owners choose the right amount of parking in the highest density downtown neighborhoods, including developing areas like NoMa and Capitol Riverfront. Elsewhere, the zoning code would require one space per three units in apartment and condominium buildings away from transit corridors and half that near transit.

This proposal is the result of multiple compromises by planning director Harriet Tregoning to satisfy opponents' concerns. If the response of mayoral candidates is any indication, Tregoning's compromises have resulted in only more demands for compromises, an outcome that many predicted.

At the forum, moderator Davis Kennedy, editor of the Northwest Current, asked the following question:

Some have criticized our city planners for reducing the amount of required parking in new apartment buildings in some neighborhoods and for allowing apartments in single family homes. The fear is that it will substantially reduce on street parking availability. Others feel if we did not reduce the new apartment parking requirements, as underground parking is so expensive, it would contribute to much higher rents. What do you think?
Kennedy asked a good question that fairly represented both sides of the issue. Here are the answers of each candidate, with the portions that directly answer the question in bold:

Muriel Bowser:

Bowser directly opposes OP's proposal, then argues that expanding alternative transportation is the better solution:

I think that the Office of Planning got this one wrong, and that's why I introduced emergency legislation that in some cases would limit the expansion of visitor parking. Walking in Georgetown neighborhoods, walking all around ward 2, people tell me that DDOT got it wrong and we stopped it working with your councilmember who joined me in that effort.

This is what I know: our city's roaring. We'll have 200,000 new people here by the year 2040 and not everyone will be able to drive. I approach our transportation system in a balanced way. We have to have excellent public transportation. We have to have excellent bikeshare or bike parking, bike lanes. And we have to have roads that work and the ability to park.

It's very important that we approach our entire transportation system with a balance. We asked the Office of Planning not to eliminate parking minimums, because that was their first plan, but to look at a way to manage it in a better way.

This has become the standard way for elected officials opposing OP's proposal to frame the issue, and Evans and Orange follow suit. But fewer parking requirements and more multimodal streets solve different problems. Reducing parking requirements prevents regulatory-driven overbuilding of parking, which induces greater demand for parking and streets and makes housing less affordable. Bike lanes won't do that.

What's also concerning is that she sees alternative transportation as needed because "not everyone will be able to drive." Everyone I know who uses bike lanes, buses and so on also is able to drive and does whenever they want to.

Jack Evans:

Evans goes the furthest in opposing OP's proposal, saying he would keep the 1958 minimum parking requirements currently in place:

The Office of Planning definitely got this wrong. I agree with keeping the parking requirements just as they are, and I'm joining with Councilmember Bowser and Councilmember Cheh to address that with the Office of Planning. Taking away more parking spaces in this city is a terrible idea.

What we have to do is focus on alternative means of transportation, something I've done in my 22 years on the Council. I served on the Metro Board and was the advocate for not only completing the 103-mile system that currently exists but for expanding Metro and someday we hope to have a Metro in Georgetown.

Secondly, bike laneswe have more bike lanes in Ward 2 than in all the other wards combined and we will continue to promote bike as another alternative transportation. Light railagain something this Council has supported, building the light rail system that will connect Georgetown to downtown and to the eastern parts of this city. So the alternative means are very important but keeping the parking as it is is also very critical.

He repeats Bowser's framing by saying that "what we have to do is focus on alternative means of transportation," taking credit for bike lanes in Ward 2 that everyone knows would have happened without him.

Reta Jo Lewis:

Lewis addresses the issue the least directly, offering general arguments for more parking. She says it would be "unacceptable" to "eliminate any parking inside of buildings," but minimum parking requirements apply to new buildings.

I served as the chief of staff in the Department of Public Works when it used to be called DPW. I want you to know that parking is one of the most important things any agency does when it deals with transportation.

Now I live right downtown, right on 5th and Mass. And I've watched everything get built. And what I've watched is not any more parking spaces coming on. And it would be unacceptable to allow our offices of administration to eliminate any parking inside of buildings.

What we have to do is continue to offer a comprehensive strategy, a comprehensive plan, of how residents, not just downtown, but in all of our neighborhoods, especially like Georgetown. In your 2028 Plan you specifically talked about parking. It is fair for us in communities to have parking spaces.

Vincent Orange:

Orange, like Evans, specifically supports the existing minimum residential parking requirement of one space per unit. His unique bit of unhelpful framing is to pit new residents against long-time residents:

I also think that the Office of Planning got this one wrong. There needs to be a proper balance. If you're gonna keep building units, then there at least should be a parking spot per unit. Clearly there needs to be a balance here in the District of Columbia. We're getting more and more residents.

But also that balance has to include those residents that have been here during the bad times, to still be able to be here in the good times, and allowed to travel throughout this city and be able to find parking. So there has to be a balance.

I applaud those that really are really studying this issue, to make sure there are bike lanes, there's light rail, there's transportation needs being addressed by Metro and others. But there has to be a balance. And I believe that balance can only be maintained by when you build units there should be parking associated with those units.

It's at this point that one notices none of the candidates have responded to Kennedy's argument for reducing minimum parking requirements, that it promotes affordable housing that enables long-time residents to stay in DC. Bowser and others have complained about the high rents on 14th Street for example, but part of those rents are needed to pay for minimum parking requirements.

Andy Shallal:

Shallal doesn't address minimum parking requirements, but offers complaints about insufficient parking:

I agree there's a problem, obviously, with parking. Owning a business in the District, it's very difficult as it is. And when my customers tell me they're having a hard time parking, it really makes it even that much more difficult to attract business and keep business.

It's very interesting: often times I will get a lease for a space to be able to open a restaurant, and then all the neighbors get upset because there's no parking there. I have nothing to do with the way that it was zoned and suddenly I am the one that's at fault and needs to find parking for all the people that have to come in.

The other I think we can't really address parking unless we address public transportation. I think that's one of the major issues is the fact that a lot of people want to see the Metro open later, especially on the weekends. They want to see it later. Maybe we can go for 24 hours. A lot of my patrons and my customers, my employees, would like to be able to see that.

The other thing is that increasing the hours of the parking meters is not working for many of my customers and I think we need to bring it back to 6:30.

This is concerning given that Shallal has made affordable housing a central tenet of his campaign. His platform doesn't include any positions on transportation.

His only position on parking that he offers in his response is that parking meters shouldn't be enforced after 6:30pm. However, this a peak period of demand for scarce on-street parking, and pricing on-street parking according to demand would be a better solution.

Tommy Wells:

While Wells is the only candidate to not offer arguments against OP's proposal, he also doesn't argue in support of reducing parking requirements. Instead, he uses the opportunity to argue for his bill to give OP the power to not allow residents of new buildings to receive residential parking permits:

I think that on something like parking, like everything else, we have to work smart. First thing is that if a building does put the parking space in there and everyone gets a residential parking sticker, we're going to wipe out all the neighborhood parking in Georgetown if they have the neighborhood right to park in the neighborhood. We have to be a lot smarter than that.

You know you've adopted a plan in Georgetown that does say that there be a new Metro station here. We'll bring in a streetcar system which I've been a champion of. As the city grows if our businesses are going to survive, and our local businesses, people have to come into Georgetown and out and they all shouldn't come in a car.

One of the bills that I've proposed (which I proposed last time, and this Council killed, and I've re-proposed) is when we have infill development and we put a building in there and they want anything from the government they negotiate that the residents at the building will not get residential parking. We can't build any more residential parking. And so, on the streets, we cannot add more spaces. So its more important to be smart.

While Wells' bill is good, it's disappointing that none of the candidates offered any arguments in support of scaling back parking requirements. Georgetown is a difficult audience with which to discuss minimum parking requirements, but if we are serious about affordable housing and not allowing our city to turn into a car sewer we have to address parking requirements directly instead of changing the subject.
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