“It’s not so crazy to have these reflections and analyses along the way,” said Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor for education, whose office oversees the OSSE. Smith said that she was not involved in the decision about scoring but that many states are struggling to minimize disruption as they make the transition to Common Core tests in 2015.
Greg Cizek, a testing expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said applying new standards and equating test results to align with old standards are both reasonable and defensible approaches.
“But from a purist perspective, I think you pick your approach first and then live with the results,” Cizek said. “It’s not as common to pick an approach, not like it, and then go with a different approach.”
D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who chairs the Education Committee and who has sparred with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) over education policy, said his staff has been crunching test data in an effort to understand the OSSE’s scoring decision and its impact. Catania has scheduled a roundtable with administration officials on the matter for Thursday.
“I am concerned about the possible manipulation of D.C. CAS results by OSSE and the lack of transparency in the process,” Catania said in a statement. “OSSE’s explanation raises more questions than it answers.”
Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, said the mayor and his education deputy, Smith, had no role in the decision. “Any accusation that OSSE is cooking the books is really absurd and based on politics,” Ribeiro said.
D.C. officials said they didn’t want to shock schools with a new grading scale in 2013 and again in 2015. In 2015, the city has committed to begin administering Common Core-aligned tests developed by a consortium that includes the District and more than a dozen states. Scores are generally expected to drop on that more difficult exam.
“There are going to be some difficult truths for us to face in terms of where we are and what do we need to do to ensure all of our students achieve,” said Noel, the official who oversees testing for the OSSE.
The city’s move to Common Core left many educators with the impression that a student who was “proficient” on the 2013 tests was meeting Common Core standards, according to one principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
But it is unclear what it means to be rated as proficient on the 2013 tests.
Despite efforts to equate old and new results, the level of skill is not what students needed to meet the old standards, nor is it what teachers identified as necessary to be rated as proficient under the new ones.
“It’s a hard question to answer,” said Noel, who added that CTB is in the process of constructing a definition of proficiency based on the skills demonstrated by students whose “equated” scores placed them in the “proficient” category.
Some teachers have puzzled over unusual patterns in the test data, especially steep year-to-year drops in the points students needed to be rated as proficient. Fifth-graders needed 42 points to be proficient in math in 2012, for example, and only 34 points in 2013, according to OSSE. Most questions are worth one point.
In previous years, the number of points needed to be rated as proficient fluctuated only slightly, by one or two, according to the OSSE. This year it changed by as much as nine points, depending on the grade level.
The last time officials developed a new test-score scale, setting the difficulty level for proficiency, was in 2006. The old D.C. Board of Education publicly approved the “cut scores,” the minimum scores needed to reach proficiency. But since the advent of mayoral control, decisions about test scoring are made administratively by the OSSE, without public notice.
The reason OSSE officials didn’t explain their decisions about scoring when test results were first released was that “there’s a lot of nuance and detail to it,” Noel said. “It’s maybe not the first thing out of your mouth when you begin talking about results.”
Noel has worked at the OSSE for two years but assumed responsibility for testing just a few days before the decision had to be made about scoring in June. He has fielded a stream of questions from Catania’s staff, reporters and others, and said he is now trying to communicate the choice that he and his colleagues made. “We haven’t told the story well enough,” Noel said.