Special Report

A Small Wonder

Delaware’s early commitment to standards-based accountability may have helped push it from the low tier of states to well above the U.S. average on national tests in reading and mathematics.
By Debra Viadero — January 03, 2006 11 min read
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If you want to understand Delaware’s success in raising achievement over the past decade or so, you might ask educators or policymakers what the state did right, study some reports, or sift through old news accounts.


A Small Wonder
Big States, Big Results
The Road Less Traveled
Staying the Course
Investing in the Future
Playing Catch-Up
Table of Contents

Or you could come here to Lulu M. Ross Elementary School and read the writing on the wall.

Educators at this 629-student school, which serves children in grades 2-5, have plastered charts tracking its educational progress to a wall in the lobby. Among other statistics, the charts illustrate the

percentages of 3rd and 5th graders passing state math and reading tests every year since 1998. They document the narrowing academic gaps between lower-achieving African-American and Hispanic students and their white peers. They even chart growth in the number of books in the school library. For teachers and pupils alike, the wall in the lobby is an ever-present reminder of the school’s focus on improved teaching and learning.

It’s also emblematic of Delaware’s drive, going back to the early 1990s, to raise instructional quality. The state has steadily trod that path through three governors, and three leadership changes in the state education department.

In 1992, the First State was among the first states to adopt teaching standards in key academic subjects, craft tests aligned closely with them, and create sticks and carrots to ensure that schools would use them. Delaware was well ahead of the push for state accountability that is the focus of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law in 2002.

Brienna Kollock, a 2nd grader, reads at her desk at Lulu M. Ross Elementary School in Milford Del., where students' test scores are closely monitored to identify academic needs.

By the close of the 1990s, Delaware had compiled all the resulting data in a computer system that principals could use to pinpoint instructional weaknesses in their buildings. Which groups of students were struggling to meet the new standards? What academic concepts had teachers missed? Principals at schools like Ross Elementary could find the answers with a few clicks of a computer mouse to guide their own school improvement efforts.

The idea was to establish a system that could reasonably ensure that a 5th grader in, say, inner-city Wilmington would have the same shot at academic success as a counterpart in a wealthier suburb.

“We had a state accountability system before NCLB came along, and we had already issued our first round of state rankings,” says Valerie A. Woodruff, Delaware’s education secretary.

Gains and Advantages

Judging by the numbers alone, the state’s efforts seem to have borne fruit. On national tests in reading, Delaware moved from the lower tier of states in 1992 to well above the national average in 2005.

At the elementary school level, the state chalked up the nation’s highest reading gains over that period. For instance, the state increased its 4th grade reading score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by 12.9 points, compared with a national gain of 2.5 points.

Vital Statistics
Public schools200
Public school teachers7,749
Pre-K-12 students117,668
Annual pre-K-12 expenditures$1.1 billion
Minority students42.7%
Children in poverty14%
Students with disabilities14.6%
English-language learners3%

What’s more, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center’s analysis shows much of that growth has come among hard-to-reach, low-achieving students and minority students. Delaware outpaced the nation, for example, in moving 4th graders out of the “below basic” level in reading on NAEP. The state lowered the percent of 4th graders scoring below basic by 16 percentage points between 1992 and 2005, compared with a reduction of 3 percentage points nationally.

Black students’ NAEP reading scores have improved at a similar clip. Low-income students have also made strong gains in reading and math. While large achievement gaps remain between the poor and the wealthy, and between black and Hispanic students and their white classmates, such gaps tend be smaller in Delaware than they are in the rest of the country.

On NAEP math tests between 1996 and 2005, the achievement gap between Delaware’s needy 4th graders and their better-off peers shrank by 9 points. Nationwide over the same period, that achievement gap decreased by a mere 1.7 points.

Whether such improvements are due entirely to the state’s long-running education improvement program or to other factors is hard to say. Local experts say that the state has some advantages that helped propel changes.

One is its small size. With fewer than 120,000 students in 200 public schools this year, Delaware’s enrollment is no bigger than that of some school districts, such as Memphis or San Diego. It’s compact, too. Milford, for instance, is just a 45-minute drive from almost any other school in the state, says district Superintendent Robert D. Smith. That makes it easy for him and his teachers to visit schools with model programs and study their success firsthand.

“Everybody knows somebody who’s involved in one of these projects, so I think in Delaware there was more awareness of what the state was doing than was typical,” says Douglas A. Archbald, an associate professor of education at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

Also, as four of the state’s 19 districts were under school desegregation orders until 1995, the state lacks the high concentrations of racially isolated schools that can be found in nearby big cities such as Baltimore and Washington. Where poverty exists, Delaware residents say, it tends to be more widely dispersed than it is in many other places, or contained in small pockets, both rural and urban.

Robert L. Hampel, another University of Delaware education professor, says that the state also has nearly always had a high percentage of students in private schools. After factoring in the public school students attending charter schools and vocational-technical schools, as much as 29 percent of Delaware’s school-age population gets an education outside of regular public schools.

“What that does is give public schools an incentive to work hard, because otherwise they run the risk of losing students,” Hampel says.

Schools in Delaware, moreover, have enjoyed consistent funding and sustained bipartisan support from state lawmakers since the launch of the standards-and-testing program in the early 1990s. With average adjusted per-pupil funding of $9,472 in 2002-03, the state ranks eighth in the nation in K-12 education spending.

“Delaware has avoided some of the adversarial politics that has hurt other states,” Hampel says, “and one upshot of this is that local districts don’t just wait for the state to tell them what to do. They will respond to state initiatives by introducing two of their own.”

‘All Drill and Practice’?

Milford, a town of 7,000 that stands at the gateway between the state’s more populous northern region and the farms and beach towns of lower Delaware, offers a case in point.

Uncommon Gains

Delaware has made double-digit gains in both 4th and 8th grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. At the national level, reading scores have barely budged. Between 1992 and 2005, Delaware outpaced the national gain in 4th grade reading by more than 10 points. And Delaware was one of only three states to make statistically significant gains in 8th grade reading between 1998 and 2005.


Note: Accommodations were not permitted for students with disabilities and English-language learners in 1992.

Reaching All Students

Delaware has moved large percentages of 4th graders out of NAEP’s “below basic” category of reading achievement. In 1992, more than four in 10 4th graders in the state scored at the below basic level in reading. By 2005, Delaware had reduced that number significantly.


Note: Accommodations were not permitted for students with disabilities and English-language learners in 1992.

SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2006

As in other districts, educators here have had strong incentives to take the new standards and tests seriously. Beginning in 2002, mandatory summer school has been the consequence for students in grades 3, 5, and 8 who do poorly on some of the tests.

And, until 2002, the state offered fiscal rewards to schools whose students scored high on the tests.

State policymakers have also debated over the years whether—and how—to tie test results to high school graduation. By 2008, there will be only one diploma, and it will be tied to course requirements and the state test.

Superintendent Smith says his district embraced the state’s new standards, and even rewrote them to give teachers more detailed guidance on the kinds of skills and activities their students would have to master. The district also began administering formative assessments to students four times a year. Such tests are meant to help teachers detect and quickly remedy any instructional weaknesses, rather than wait for annual state test results.

“We can tell exactly how many times a student has been tested on a particular standard and how they did, and that has really helped,” says Smith.

At his urging, Ross Elementary and a handful of other elementary schools in the 4,000-student district also adopted a Total Quality Management strategy in 1998 to help boost test scores. As part of the program, teachers and students alike set educational goals and then measure their progress toward them, using charts and graphs like the ones on the school’s data wall. Students also keep notebooks with their own grades and charts.

“It’s really helped us focus on student learning,” Sylvia Henderson, the principal of Ross Elementary School, says of the quality-management program. “Because of the state mandates, yes, we were led in that direction. But we had so many activities and initiatives going on in different directions that we needed to stop, take stock of initiatives, and make sure that they were all leading in the same direction, and this has helped us do that.”

Since then, the school has seen increases of 15 to 30 percentage points on state tests in reading, writing, and math in the 3rd and 5th grades.

But educators here flag a downside to that progress: no more time for Thanksgiving plays, no movie rewards for good behavior, no assemblies that aren’t directly tied to the curriculum, and few enrichment activities during regular school hours.

“Yes, it’s fun and exciting to learn new things,” says Henderson. “But I think of my 4-year-old daughter and I wonder, ‘Is she going to be able to come to school and share her Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions?’ Is she going to be well rounded, or is she going to have all drill and practice?”

It’s noteworthy that the gains at both Ross and districtwide have come at a time when the schools have become increasingly diverse in their economic, ethnic, and racial makeups.

In Milford, located on the banks of the Mispillion River and once a thriving shipbuilding center, the historic downtown has lost some of its luster. In place of prosperous shipbuilders, the town has drawn a growing number of poor and minority families—mostly Hispanic—who moved here seeking work in the poultry- and seafood-processing industries.

Falling Short

To a degree, Milford’s changing population mix mirrors the demographic transformation statewide.

Though non-Hispanic whites still make up an overwhelming majority of Delaware’s enrollment, the number of Hispanic students attending its public schools increased by 134 percent between the 1993-94 and 2002-03 school years, to 7.2 percent. The enrollment of black students grew by 22 percent over the same period, to 31.4 percent.

That the state has raised its test scores even as the number of traditionally lower-scoring minority students has grown makes its achievements all the more striking, according to education observers.

Delaware was one of only three states that chalked up significant NAEP gains in 8th grade reading from 1998 to 2005, including substantial progress for black and low-income students.

But the academic improvements seem to have come more slowly, or not at all, at the high school level, compared with elementary school. The statewide average graduation rate of 61.9 percent in 2001-02, in fact, is below the national average of 69.4 percent and much lower than the rates for neighboring Maryland and New Jersey.

The pattern, though, is typical of most states working to improve education: Change almost always comes quickest in elementary schools. Plus, the state targeted some of its early professional-development grants for teachers at that level.

Yet state officials concede they are disappointed at the lack of success in high school. “Quite frankly, the kids we have in high school now have been through our system,” says Woodruff, the education secretary, “and I would like to see us do better.”

Another disappointment has been the state’s inability to move more students into the “advanced” category on NAEP tests, which are seen as providing the most reliable national picture of how states are faring in core subjects. Delaware has won national recognition for making its standards academically rigorous, yet the percentage of students at advanced, the highest level of achievement, has barely increased. Educators here are hard-pressed to determine exactly why that is, with some speculating that it’s simply the natural response to pressures being put on schools to meet a minimum standard.

The state also consistently excuses a higher percentage of students with disabilities, as well as English-language learners, from taking the NAEP tests—casting a bit of a shadow on the state’s dramatic improvements. On the 2005 NAEP 4th grade reading test, for example, the state’s 13 percent exclusion rate was the second-highest in the nation. But the U.S. Department of Education has twice hired contractors to determine whether the high number of exclusions in Delaware or in any other states could be skewing the data and concluded there was no cause for concern.

The bottom line, observers in Delaware say, is that the state still has work to do.

“Most people realize at this point that, although ratcheting up basic skills is important, it’s not sufficient in terms of being competitive in a global marketplace,” says Paul A. Herdman, the president and chief executive officer of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, which supports efforts to improve education. The Wilmington-based foundation published a report last summer assessing the state’s educational progress and laying out a new long-term vision for stepping up the pace of improvement.

Business leaders, who were instrumental in the state’s early success in developing an accountability system, say they will use the report to reinvigorate the corporate community’s involvement in K-12 education and start a new round in the campaign to improve teaching and learning.

“We have a set of preconditions that almost put the responsibility on our state to become the best in the nation,” Herdman says.

“If we can’t do this in a state with 120,000 kids and per-pupil spending on education in the top ten and where we all basically get along,” he says, “how can anyone expect a state like California to figure out all the pieces that need to be rethought in order to become internationally competitive?”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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