September 25, 2013

THE D.C. Council’s education committee, chaired by Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), will meet Thursday, ostensibly to hear details of how the city’s 2013 standardized tests were scored. What’s really on the agenda, though, is the advancement of Mr. Catania’s political interests. Such grandstanding — not the arcane intricacies of scoring methodology — should be the issue of greatest concern to those who care about public education in the District.

Since taking over the newly resuscitated education committee in January, Mr. Catania has sought to establish himself as a sort of schools czar, one who knows better than anyone — especially Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson — what is good for the District’s schools. He has launched a series of misguided initiatives that would rewrite education policy. Now he’s aiming to manufacture controversy over progress made by students on state standardized tests .

He has accused administration officials of “manipulating” and “cheating” in scoring the 2013 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. At issue are problems — not unique to the District — caused by the transition to tougher Common Core State Standards and the lag in developing an assessment for the new curriculum. Some states opted to reset the test scale to make it harder to achieve proficiency and saw big drops in test scores. The District didn’t reset the proficiency scale but maintained a level of difficulty similar to previous years; it was able to report gains in both math and reading. Even using the tougher scale, District students would have shown big gains in reading.

The issues are complicated, and Mr. Catania, as has been his wont, has thrown out a flurry of numbers to buttress his contention that school officials knowingly misled the public to make themselves look good. Never mind, as experts told The Post’s Emma Brown, that the approach the District used is reasonable. That view was seconded by experts we consulted, including Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools. “What they did was not untoward; it was not beyond regular practice,” Mr. Casserly told us.

Perhaps officials could have been more open about some of these background issues, and certainly the council has a right to ask questions. But it’s long been apparent that Mr. Catania, contemplating a run for mayor, is less interested in information than in scoring points. Witness his behavior Tuesday morning, when he walked out rather than let an official from the Office of the State Superintendent for Education explain its decisions.

Expect similar histrionics at Thursday’s hearing. That the District has a real chance to improve public education makes these games distressing. Progress is being made, and more is possible — if public confidence is not undermined. Ms. Henderson is widely regarded as one of the best school superintendents in the country, and she has expressed a willingness to stay here for as long as it takes to do the job. Not only do Mr. Catania’s actions make her job harder, but they might well cause her to not to want to do it.