April 17, 2013

“THE FUTURE of school reform in the District depends on having assessments that are beyond reproach.” That was the explanation D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) gave for his introduction of legislation that would strengthen the integrity of public-school testing. Mr. Catania’s focus on the future is a much-needed, constructive approach to concerns about possible cheating.

Mr. Catania, chair of the council’s education committee, will hold a hearing Thursday on legislation that would make cheating on standardized tests illegal and establish some test-security protocols for the city’s traditional and charter public schools. The District has no laws or regulations focusing on test integrity or security. If the legislation is passed, Washington would join 10 states that have laws on the books.

The hearing comes amid renewed attention into allegations of cheating on standardized tests during the tenure of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Several investigations have been conducted into student testing by the public school system. All — including inquiries by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Education Department’s inspector general with the participation of the U.S. attorney — concluded that no widespread cheating occurred. But the public airing of a 2009 memo from a schools consultant about possible cheating is seen by critics of Ms. Rhee as a smoking gun that widespread cheating occurred and was covered up. The memo, which was known to investigators, contained no proof of cheating and warned that “much of what we think we know is based on . . . incomplete information.”

Mr. Catania has said he will ask Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby, both set to testify Thursday, about the memo. But The Post’s Emma Brown reported that the council member has ruled out a full-scale investigation as duplicative and not useful at this point. Without question, a better use of the council’s resources would be to assess the protections put in place by school officials when issues about the assessment tests arose five years ago. Results from the tests (“before” and “after” scores are used to measure progress) now make up 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Opponents of school reform seize on any allegation of cheating — clearly the exception and not the rule for educators dedicated to getting students to learn — as an argument to eliminate standardized testing. It’s wrong-headed thinking that would return public education to the days when schools didn’t know that 30 percent or 50 percent or even 70 percent of their students weren’t proficient in basic reading and math — and were under no pressure to do anything about it.