STEM Education and Tutoring in the Capital City: Part 1 – The Problem

Note: This post is part of a series of three on tutoring for science and mathematics among disadvantaged students. Part 1 looks at needs. Part 2 and part 3 give examples of successful programs.

by Quentin Wodon

Brandon was a quiet student enrolled in a primary school located in one of the poorest areas of Washington, DC, the capital city of the United States. Students in that area tend to have very low scores on standardized tests. Upon the recommendation of his teachers Brandon started to participate in the school’s tutoring program. He said little, but it was clear that he was absorbing the material being taught like a sponge. When the results from the District of Columbia’s comprehensive assessment system (DC-CAS) tests were announced, Brandon achieved proficiency in both mathematics and English. For his efforts and success, Brandon received a well-deserved award during the fifth grade graduation ceremony!

Brandon receives an award for his hard work
Brandon receives an award for his hard work

Tutoring and other supplemental education programs have received renewed attention in the United States. Under the much debated ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act adopted a dozen years ago, public schools that have not made enough progress in learning assessments for two consecutive years are in principle required to provide tutoring services to children. This makes sense given that there is scientific evidence that tutoring programs can make a difference in learning achievement if they are well implemented.

Series of Three Posts

This series of three posts on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and tutoring in the capital city is written in recognition of World Science Day for Peace and Development celebrated each year on November 10. The day raises awareness of the importance of science and aims to bridge the gap between science and societies. The focus of World Science Day celebrations this year is about quality science education.

Improving science education is needed not only in developing countries, but also in developed countries, and especially so in the capital city of Washington, DC. This first post in the series documents the state of science education in the United States and in the District of Columbia. The second post will show how as individuals we can make a difference. That post will tell the story of Rotarians who have been actively involved in mathematics and science tutoring in one of the city’s schools for several years. The third post will argue that tutoring can be brought to scale and be part of the solution. That post will report on the impact of a tutoring program implemented in Washington, DC, and a few other cities by Higher Achievement.

Performance of the US

When Brandon received his award, he was enrolled in one of the worst performing public schools in Washington, DC (the schools has since made substantial progress under new management). The District of Columbia itself is one of the worst performing areas in the United States according to national assessment data. And the performance of the United States is one of the lowest among OECD and other developed countries according to international assessment data. Before talking about the potential promise of tutoring programs, providing a few statistics and basic facts about the performance of the United States, the District of Columbia, and schools within the District may be useful to underscore the magnitude of the problem we face.

Consider first the performance of the US as a nation. International comparable data on the performance of school systems in science, mathematics, and reading are available from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). PISA measures skills for reading, mathematics and science literacy among 15 year olds. The test has been conducted every three years among a sample of students in each participating country since 2000. The latest round of data collection took place in 2012 with 65 countries participating. Results were released in December 2013.

Among 34 OECD countries, the US ranked 27th in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 20th in science, with no statistically significant improvement over time. This is despite the fact that the U.S. spends more per student than most other countries (only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland spend more, but these countries do much better). More than one in four US students did not show basic mathematics proficiency on the test. The US also had a below-average share of top performers, and (not surprisingly) students from disadvantaged backgrounds performed worse on average.

Performance of the District of Columbia

Consider next the performance of the District of Columbia within the US. Comparable data on state-level performance are available from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Data on performance in mathematics are available in 4th and 8th grades.

Nationally, the average score for fourth-graders in mathematics was 242 in 2013. For the District of Columbia, the average was 229, the lowest score in the nation. Nationally, 83 percent of students performed at or above basic level. In the District, that share was 66 percent, again the lowest in the nation. Some 42 percent of students showed proficiency nationally, but in the District the proportion was only 28 percent. Only two states (Louisiana and Mississippi) performed worse. Gaps between the District and the nation are also large in eighth grade.

Whether those gaps are due to poor teaching or the fact that many children come from disadvantaged background is beyond the scope of this blog post (for an analysis of teacher value added in the district, see this recent paper). But whatever the reasons, the fact remains that many students in the District do not perform well.  Furthermore, within the District of Columbia, inequalities in student performance also tend to be high between the well-to-do and the less fortunate.

Mentioning this inequality in performance between groups is just another way to emphasize how beyond broad averages, for the poor the likelihood to perform well on standardized tests in the District is really low. One way to show this inequality at work is to share a little known fact about the NMSQT/PSAT test administered each year in 11th grade by the College Board. For the high school class of 2015, the District (together with New Jersey) had the highest required qualifying scores for students to become National Merit Semifinalists. Students in the District had to obtain a score of 224 out of a maximum of 240 to qualify, a much higher threshold than in many other states. This is because while many students do poorly in the Districts, a few do very well, and the threshold to become a National Merit Semifinalist is state-specific and percentage based.

To sum up, the District of Columbia tends to be at the bottom in terms of average performance in mathematics (as well as science and reading) within the United States, with the United States also faring poorly internationally. That’s the problem. In the next two posts, I will discuss part of the solution – whether tutoring could help make a difference.

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