As DC voters prepare for the November 4th election, the condition of our schools and the future of education in the District loom large. The Mayoral candidates (along with state board and council candidates) have expressed different views – sometimes in harsh and extreme tones – about instructional quality, achievement trends, and overall functioning of the schools in the traditional and growing charter sectors.

What has been accomplished since the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 (PERAA) shifted authority over curriculum, operations, budget, personnel, and school facilities to the Mayor’s office? Not surprisingly, there is no simple “bottom line,” and voters are challenged by a dizzying array of data and opinion. Still, some patterns are clear.

To help voters sift through the rhetoric and make an informed choice, here are some key take-aways from four recent EdCORE reports. (EdCORE is led by the George Washington University, with Heather Harding as Executive Director. Our partners include the American Institutes for Research, Mathematica Policy Research, Policy Studies Associates, Quill Research Associates, RAND, and SRI). The full reports on PERAA are posted on the website of the DC Auditor, and are being used to inform an evaluation that the National Academy of Sciences will complete in May 2015.

Test scores have risen since PERAA was enacted, even after accounting for demographic changes.

Math scores rose between school years 2006-07 (just before PERAA took effect) and 2012-13. Reading scores also improved, but most of the gains occurred in 2007-08, the first year after PERAA. Reading achievement then remained stable until another jump in 2012-13.

Although the city’s percentages of white and higher-income residents have increased in recent years, these shifts do not explain most of the test score gains. The EdCORE analysis estimated that less than 10 percent of the year-to-year improvements in test scores, for example, were attributable to the changing demographics of D.C. students.

In math and reading, both economically disadvantaged and more advantaged students made gains, although the more advantaged students improved at a faster rate. Scores increased for all racial and ethnic groups, in traditional schools and charters, and in all wards, with the largest gains for African American and Hispanic students.

A portion of these gains may be due to growing familiarity with the DC CAS exam, which was first administered in school year 2006-07. Moreover, there have been allegations of security breaches in test administration. Both concerns are somewhat tempered by the fact that achievement trends on DC CAS mirror local trends on the highly secure National Assessment of Educational Progress. Still, caution is warranted.

The DCPS has retained a high percentage of effective teachers and hired new teachers who are at least as effective as those they replaced.

In school year 2009-10, the DCPS began implementing the IMPACT system for evaluating teacher performance. Although controversial and imperfect (as all teacher evaluation systems are), IMPACT generally gets high marks from measurement professionals and education researchers. It is based on classroom observations of teachers, measures of teachers’ contributions to the achievement growth of their students, principals’ assessments of teachers’ collaboration and professionalism, and other factors.

Because methods of calculating IMPACT scores have changed over time, it is difficult to draw year-to-year comparisons. But the scores do provide estimates of the relative performance of different groups of teachers. For example, newly hired teachers had higher ratings than teachers who left the system in the first two years of IMPACT and similar ratings to those who left in the third year. In addition, IMPACT scores remain lower for teachers in schools with the highest percentages of children from economically disadvantaged families.

The DCPS has vigorously implemented the PERAA reforms and has taken additional steps to improve curriculum, instruction, and academic offerings across wards.

To follow through on the requirements of PERAA, the Mayor’s office and the DCPS have made major changes in governance, financial management, and other business practices. At the same time, the DCPS has moved to increase academic rigor, bring consistency to the quality of teaching and learning, and expand academic offerings for students. For example, the district has adopted the Common Core and made progress in aligning curriculum, professional development, and assessments to these standards. The number of special education students placed in private schools has decreased, and new interventions have been implemented for struggling students. High schools must now offer AP courses in four areas. While it is too early to estimate the long-term effects on learning of the numerous initiatives underway, they demonstrate a commitment to improvement.

What should voters make of this evidence?

Education in DC is fraught with complexity and the challenges posed by its history of reform, the ongoing stresses of economic and social disparity across wards, and the difficulties of managing a system that is beholden to local and federal authorities. In that context, even moderate gains observed after only seven years of reform is noteworthy. Granted, the progress has been slower than some would like, weaknesses remain, and urgent problems clearly warrant ongoing attention. But on balance, things have clearly been improving in the years since PERAA.

With the Mayor at the helm of the school system, the decisions made on November 4 will determine the educational agenda for the next four years. Our schools have undergone much upheaval: as noted in a National Academy of Sciences report, DC education has had 17 different governance and administrative structures since 1804, including four significant changes since 1995. Another disruptive “jolt” now would most likely be counterproductive. My reading of the EdCORE findings suggests that the sensible approach is to hold steady with the reforms underway and to continue using the best available evidence to guide continuous improvement.