PARCC scores reveal widening achievement gap in third grade reading proficiency

For the third year in a row, DC students in almost every grade and sub-group made gains in math and reading scores on the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) Specifically, the percentage of students meeting the 4+ “at or above proficiency” benchmark increased by 4 points in English Language Arts (ELA) to 31% and 2 points in math to 27%.

In contrast to previously used standardized tests, the PARCC assesses skills that are viewed as crucial for achieving “modern-day success”.[1] These skills include clear communication, critical thinking and problem solving. Additionally, the PARCC provides parents and teachers with meaningful feedback about student performance, allowing them to build upon existing strengths while jointly addressing areas of academic challenge.[2]

DC Action tracks indicators and test scores for all children in the K-12 system; however, we continue to remain focused on the fact that third grade reading proficiency is a strong predictor of future academic success. As described in DC Action’s 3rd grade reading policy brief, students who are not proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade often struggle to catch up and are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who test proficient.[3] This year, only 31% of 3rd graders were on track for the next grade level in English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA).

Perhaps even more alarming are the widening gaps in proficiency after disaggregating this 3rd grade data by race/ethnicity. Over the last three years, the percentage of white 3rd graders who achieve a 4+ score has increased by more than 5%, from 71% in 2015 to 76.3% in 2017. For black and Hispanic children, though the percentage of students who meet proficiency standards has improved, gaps in achievement remain substantial. As demonstrated in the chart below, the achievement gap between white and black children at the 3rd grade level has increased from 54% in 2015 to 57% in 2017.


Research suggests that racial/ethnic achievement gaps exist for many reasons: socioeconomic disparities (e.g., income/poverty status)[4], segregation in schools (by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status)[5], access to or lack of knowledge about educational resources during non-school months[6], quality of classroom conditions (instructional resources, teachers)[7] and severity of disciplinary action (often determined by race/ethnicity of student) [8]. Today, race/ethnicity remains a strong predictor of academic performance in the United States.[9] Despite the passage of historical major reforms, we are still grappling with consequences of decisions made more than a century ago, decisions that created systemic inequities in the American education system. Even in the District, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status are strong predictors of academic performance and educational success. This fact is alarming and should inspire action across stakeholder groups invested in the future of our children and our city: parents, teachers, advocates and District leaders.

While the widening achievement highlights a sobering reality, we must acknowledge that our efforts to ensure equitable opportunities for DC children do not rest solely on the District’s education system. A narrow focus on the role of the education system ignores the other elements that influence educational inequities throughout the city, including the reality that our neighborhoods remain segregated and socioeconomic disparities persist.

We know that the Mayor, City Council, DCPS Chancellor, in addition to other leaders, are aware and concerned about these achievement gaps; over the last few years the District has been making strategic investments to address these existing gaps. For example, the Quality Improvement Network (QIN)[ED1] , connects infants and toddlers, families and early education and child care providers to resources (e.g., physical/behavioral health referrals, professional development) they need in order to succeed and thrive, both inside and outside of the classroom. The District has also, for the 3rd year, allocated funding to the Early Literacy Grant[ED2] . With this, money is given to organizations who use evidence-based literacy intervention services, like Reading Partners and Literacy Lab, outside of school hours, for children in Pre-K to 3rd grade. Third, the District’s TANF reform bill ensures that children living in families who receive are protected. By requiring that 80% of the monthly benefit be designated as the “children’s portion,” the bill guarantees that parents dealing with economic hardships have consistent income and resources to meet their child’s most basic needs, like food and clothing. This percentage of assistance cannot be cut or sanctioned for any reason.[10]

The differences we’re seeing in child outcomes by race/ethnicity exist because of a long history of unequal opportunity and access. There is little doubt that closing these gaps will take deliberate and thoughtful action. However, if we commit to implementing programs and practices that not only focus on the well-being of students while they are in school, but also focus on what is happening when they’re not at school, we can make progress toward reducing disparities and inequities. We at DC Action are committed to being more explicit about identifying specific laws and policies within the District that perpetuate inequities. We also strive to have honest conversations about what race equity and inclusion looks like for our city and specifically for our children – and ask that our partners, leaders and community members do the same. If we don’t honestly acknowledge and identify the systemic and institutional flaws that directly affect and perpetuate these gaps, District children will continue to live in a city that is inequitable according to race, wealth and educational opportunity.


[1] Bobb, R.C. (2015, August 28). Standardized tests can help combat inequity. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:….

[2] Ibid.

[3] Vance, T. (2016). Trends in third grade reading proficiency: An analysis of DC CAS Results (2007 – 2014). DC Action for Children. Retrieved from:

[4] The Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPR). (2017). Racial and ethnic achievement gaps. The Educational Opportunity Monitoring Project. Retrieved from:

[5] McLaren, M. (2017, February 26). Report: Public schools in the District remain highly segregated. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:….

[6] Hanushek, E.A. (2009). Harming the best: How schools affect the black-white achievement gap. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 28, 366 – 393.

[7] Lee, J. (2002). Racial and ethnic achievement gap trends: Reversing the progress towards equity? Educational Researcher, 31, 3 – 12.

[8] Gregory, A., Skiba, R.J., & Noguera, P.A. (2011). The achievement gap and the discipline gap: Two sides of the same coin? Educational Researcher, 39, 59 – 68.

[9] Noguera, P. (2003). City schools and the American dream: Reclaiming the promise of public education. New York: Teachers College Press.

[10] Lassiter, L. (2017). What’s in the fiscal year 2018 budget for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)? DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Retrieved from:

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