October 4, 2013

This week, the administration of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) re-released the results of the 2013 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test as scored by the standards recommended by educators. I am pleased that our parents and teachers finally have access to these results, and I am proud of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education’s role in bringing them to light.

The mayor and others have argued that the last-minute decision to release the 2013 results based on outdated scoring standards was reasonable. But what some argue is reasonable for adults is not necessarily what is best for children.

The D.C.-CAS is administered to students each April. But this year’s test fundamentally differed from those of years past. Both the math and reading portions were changed to reflect the Common Core State Standards, a curriculum that the District began implementing in 2011. In fact, the District’s test administrator advised city officials that the new version was so different that they would need to update scoring standards to accurately measure student proficiency.

Thus, beginning in the summer of 2012, the District began updating those standards. With the assistance of more than 120 educators and testing professionals, appropriate definitions of proficiency at each grade level were developed and new “cut scores” were set. Cut scores pinpoint the score that a student must achieve to be designated as proficient. The entire process cost taxpayers approximately $2 million. It culminated on June 17, when the professionals formally recommended updated cut scores to D.C. school officials. These were tailored to the proficiency definitions developed for the Common Core-based exam.

On that same day, school officials learned that applying the updated standards would result in a much less impressive increase in student proficiency — 0.5 percentage points compared with the 4-percentage-point gain ultimately announced. Within hours of learning this, the officials began changing course. Three days later, without any public notification or discussion, they quietly instructed the District’s test administrator to abandon the cut scores and instead judge student proficiency based on the outdated standards.

Soon thereafter, the mayor held a news conference to announce “historic gains” in student proficiency in both math and reading. The Post’s editorial board highlighted Gray’s “fist-pump-punctuated ‘Yes!’ ” before issuing a “warning to those who would interfere” with his policies.

Neither the mayor nor any member of his administration informed the public that these gains did not accurately measure proficiency on the tougher Common Core-based test. Instead, it took the Committee on Education six weeks of thorough examination to uncover the truth. In response to the committee’s work, administration officials have engaged in a series of after-the-fact explanations to justify their scoring decision.

First, they argued that they are obligated to report results that are comparable to years past before acknowledging at a committee hearing that, in fact, no such requirement exists. Then they cited the potential effect on teacher evaluation systems before conceding that, in the District, evaluations are based on student progress, not the percentage of students classified as proficient. Finally, they claimed that they did not want to shock the testing system. But when pressed, they admitted that other states, such as New York and Kentucky, had the courage to accurately report their students’ results on the more difficult Common Core test.

Why does all this matter? Because cheating students and teachers out of their proper test results deprives them of the opportunity to understand where they did well and where improvement is needed. As such, it makes it harder for educators to design the instruction and interventions our students need to succeed.

I am proud of the recent improvements in our public education system in the District. This progress is not at issue. What is at stake here is the integrity of our academic assessments and the accuracy of the results they produce. To continue our progress and build lasting confidence in our public schools, these items must be above reproach.

The writer, an independent, is an at-large member of the D.C. Council and chairman of the council’s Committee on Education.

Read more about this issue: