If this isn’t school reform failure, what is?


Michelle Rhee, right, with her successor as D.C. schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson. (2010 photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

School reformers have made student standardized test scores the most important measure of how public schools are doing, so it seems only fair to measure their performance by their own definition of success. The newly released 2014 high-stakes test scores tells us that D.C. Public Schools doesn’t have a great deal to show for its reforms since Michelle Rhee became chancellor in 2007 and her deputy, Kaya Henderson, succeeded her in 2010.

In fact, as Bernie Horn writes here on the blog of the Public Leadership Institute:

The latest results of the DC-CAS, the District of Columbia’s high-stakes standardized test, show that the percentage of public school students judged “proficient” or better in reading has declined over the past five years in every significant subcategory except “white.”*

When D.C. Public Schools released the latest student scores on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams last week, Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she was “disappointed.” She was hoping for a second year of big gains in the traditional public school system after students posted a four-point gain in reading and math scores in 2013 — but that didn’t happen.

This Washington Post story describes the results like this:

Average student proficiency rates on the District’s annual standardized tests inched up in 2014, increasing 1.4 percentage points in math and less than one percentage point in reading, results that city leaders called steady-if-slow progress in improving academic prospects for the District’s children.

Even with the uptick, there were some unsettling data points: Proficiency rates among students learning English as a second language declined in both subjects and in both traditional and charter schools. Latino students’ reading proficiency rates also dropped in both sectors, while the traditional school system saw reading proficiency fall among its economically disadvantaged students.

Some see the data points as a little more than unsettling.

After the 2103 scores were released, my colleague Emma Brown wrote this story that said in part:

 The four-point gains D.C. public school students achieved citywide on the most recent annual math and reading tests were acclaimed as historic, as more evidence that the city’s approach to improving schools is working.

But the math gains officials reported were the result of a quiet decision to score the tests in a way that yielded higher scores even though D.C. students got far fewer math questions correct than in the year before. The decision was made after D.C. teachers recommended a new grading scale — which would have held students to higher standards on tougher math tests — and after officials reviewed projections that the new scale would result in a significant decline in math proficiency rates….

…Officials at the District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) — the agency responsible for administering exams for the city’s traditional public and public charter schools — said they decided not to adopt the teacher-recommended grading scale because it was important to continue comparing student performance consistently from year to year. [emphasis mine]

In some other school districts that made their standardized tests harder to align with the Common Core State Standards, as D.C. did, officials set the “cut scores” that determine how well students are doing in a way that showed significant drops in reading and math scores. In face, New York officials were accused by some educators of setting the cut scores so high that a predicted big drop in student results was guaranteed.

If it seems that cut-score setting can be manipulated, that’s only because it is.

If it doesn’t seem fair to compare one year’s set of scores to another when the test questions and scoring have changed, it isn’t.

Yet, OSSE insists that psychometricians were able to calculate the differences to ensure fair comparisons from year to year. Let’s look at the scary long-term data in reading.

Horn, a senior advisor at the institute, writes:

…The latest results of the DC-CAS, the District of Columbia’s high-stakes standardized test, show that the percentage of public school students judged “proficient” or better in reading has declined over the past five years in every significant subcategory except “white.”

This is important, and not just for Washington, D.C. It is an indictment of the whole corporatized education movement. During these five years, first Michelle Rhee and then her assistant/successor Kaya Henderson controlled DCPS and they did everything that the so-called “reformers” recommend: relying on standardized tests to rate schools, principals and teachers; closing dozens of schools; firing hundreds of teachers and principals; encouraging the unchecked growth of charters; replacing fully-qualified teachers with Teach For America and other non-professionals; adopting teach-to-the-test curricula; introducing computer-assisted “blended learning”; increasing the length of the school day; requiring an hour of tutoring before after-school activities; increasing hours spent on tested subjects and decreasing the availability of subjects that aren’t tested. Based on the city’s own system of evaluation, none of it has worked.

Below are the DC-CAS results from the DCPS website. These do not include charter schools; school authorities chose to hide those longitudinal results. But we know from a detailed memorandum by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that — based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — results including charter schools would be little different than this.

ReadingProficiency % 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Difference 2009 to 14
All DCPS 46.2 43.9 43.4 43.4 47.4 47.7 1.5
Low Income 38.3 35.0 33.7 32.5 37.6 36.6 -1.7
Black 41.1 38.5 36.7 35.1 38.6 38.6 -2.5
Hispanic 49.8 43.1 47.5 46.7 51.2 48.6 -1.2
White 90.0 89.6 88.7 90.6 92.1 91.6 1.6
Special Ed 22.3 15.5 15.4 15.7 18.1 17.7 -4.6
Eng Lang Learner 47.0 39.3 39.1 37.9 36.8 36.4 -10.6

Over the past five years, the percentage of low-income students (those who are eligible for free or reduced price school lunch) who score proficient or better for reading has declined. The same is true for black and Hispanic students, children in special education programs and English language learners. The only major subgroup to improve (barely) is white children.

Similarly, when listed by geographic boundaries, reading results declined in six of eight wards. The only wards to show slight improvement are 2 (which includes Georgetown and Dupont Circle) and 3 (which is the whitest and most affluent in the city).

…DCPS presents these disastrous numbers under the heading “Long-term progress in Reading has been maintained.” The mayor, the DCPS chancellor, and the powers-that-be all act like there’s nothing wrong.

But clearly, this is what failure looks like. If a school had scores like this over the past five years, it would be targeted for closure. If principals or teachers had scores like this, they would be fired. If a student had scores like this, s/he would be made to feel like a failure. Where is the accountability in this supposedly “data-driven” system?

D.C. officials presented the scores by going back to 2007 and 2008, when test scores were higher in most subcategories, the result of work done in schools under superintendents before Rhee. Here’s the chart officials used to explain the 2014 reading proficiency scores:

 


(DCPS website)

 

*(In his analysis Horn doesn’t include Asians, who also saw an increase in reading proficiency, as a significant subcategory because there are fewer than 150 in the entire school system. On DCPS’s Web site a demographics chart doesn’t break out Asians as a specific subcategory:


 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · August 4, 2014