For example, 4th-grade math students in the District scored an average of 212 points out of a possible 500 while white students scored 262 points. This equates to a 50-point difference—twice the national average. (The gap in New York City and Philadelphia, on the other hand, is about 20 points.) The DCPS findings were among test score data for 21 of the nation's largest school districts.
A spokesman for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education said the widening gap has long been a topic of conversation among D.C. educators.
"It's been looked at and talked about for a while," said Marc Caposino. "I know that there are programs in the DCPS system as well as within the charters that are targeting low-income kids as well as English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) kids to improve the numbers." He added that at one facility he recently visited, staff had displayed inspirational messages on walls to encourage better student performance.
Overall, "[the gap in DCPS] is not something that's much different than any other major urban," Caposino said. "I can also say that the District has one of the highest educated white populations in the country, which is also a significant contributor."
Asked who is to blame for the gap, Caposino responded, "no one in particular."
He said that instead of looking for blame, concerned parties should consider how to improve the situation. "And that's where our efforts are focused," he said.
One area Chancellor Henderson said she feels worthy of focus is the combination of teacher performance and school closings. During a radio broadcast interview last week, she said her office is carrying out a "Herculean effort" to ensure highly qualified teachers are in city classrooms.
Henderson also said in 2008, some 23 DCPS facilities were closed and several more are slated for closing next year.
"When enrollment and achievement have been declining, it makes the school a good candidate for closure," said Henderson.
Meanwhile, Dana Goldstein, a fellow at the non-profit Nation Institute in New York City analyzed DCPS's scores and compared them with the school system in Charlotte, NC. She found that demographics play a vital, yet limited role in students' academic performance.
"Poor, black, and Hispanic students do better in Charlotte than they do in D.C.," Goldstein wrote in comments pertaining to the NAEP study. "There are many reasons why this is so, starting with "peer effects:" The Charlotte district is more diverse than DCPS, with a greater percentage of white, Asian, and middle-class students, as well as individual schools and classrooms that are more socioeconomically-integrated."
Goldstein also concluded that while Rhee failed to significantly narrow achievement gaps, the gaps would be less disturbing if overall achievement levels were moderate or high.
"But what we continue to see in D.C. is that white students score well above both national and urban district averages for their race; [and that] black, Hispanic and poor children score well below national averages for their races and classes," Goldstein wrote.
Michael Casserly, executive director for the District of Columbia-based Council of Great City Schools, said although widening of the gap has not been a good sign, he's optimistic about what Henderson has done to close it. On the other hand, Casserly said he has yet to understand why the gap widened in the first place.
"You see these numbers bounced around a little bit, but you can't say they're [directly] attributed to testing cycles," Casserly told The Washington Informer. "[The numbers] move a little bit sometimes and it's hard to explain. However, in this case, [there's been a ] widening of the gap over one testing cycle, and I'm not clear what that means . . . you certainly don't want the numbers -- wide as they are -- to get any worse."
Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund in D.C. also said DCPS's progress has not been "close to" what's been expected.
"I think part of what's also going on in the District in terms of the gap is there has been a huge influx of students from affluent families in the system," Filardo said. "So what's being seen now -- as in the upper Northwest schools in Ward 3-- are [students in the DCPS system] who come from neighborhoods of some of the highest educated people on the planet."
Commenting on the impact for black students who've been attending DCPS facilities for the past 10 years, "it's been horrendous," said Filardo, alluding to inequity in funding surrounding spending per student.
"Right now in the District of Columbia, there is no extra funding [for students] who come into DCPS schools from low-income families," said Filardo. "So a wealthy family on the high end of that achievement gap, and a child whose family is in the most distressed financial condition, get the same amount per student from the city -- and that's wrong."
To that end, Filardo said part of what's caused the achievement gap, "is that we have not had a system of funding in D.C. that has really done what it needed to do to make sure that the kids who need the most help are getting it."