Jonetta Rose Barras
Jonetta Rose Barras
Opinion Writer

Shining a light on D.C. test scores

Education reform under D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has been a covert operation, with secret maneuvers and closed-door meetings involving a select few. That critical flaw is at the heart of the controversy surrounding the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the agency charged with establishing academic standards and ensuring the integrity of the District’s public education system.

The OSSE decided over the summer to apply an old grading system to the District’s new standardized test — despite recommendations from experts that it use a tougher scale. Officials made that decision only after seeing the scores and realizing that in some instances the numbers would be far from impressive if the new grading scale were applied.

Jonetta Rose Barras

Jonetta Rose Barras’s weekly column focuses on local life, government and politics, with an emphasis on the District. With more than 20 years’ experience reporting and commenting for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, City Paper, WAMU and other outlets, she is a familiar voice in the D.C. region.

Archive

Undoubtedly, any decrease in proficiency rates would have been equated by the public with education reform failure. So, OSSE officials used the old grading system and rolled out test scores it could herald as historic.

Jeffrey Noel, OSSE’s data director since June, defended the agency’s actions last week before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education, chaired by Council member David Catania (I-At Large), who blasted the decision. Noel disputed claims that he acted to camouflage decreases in proficiency. Rather, he said, he retained the original scoring system so that he could compare student performance in 2013 with that of previous years. He also worried that using the new grading system would “upset” the charter board’s performance management framework, which is designed to rank independently operated but publicly funded schools.

Interestingly, Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor for education, who has oversight of OSSE, told me the agency’s approach was reasonable — although she said other methods could have been used to achieve the comparison. She said the most important issue was whether there was student growth.

“What we’re doing is making progress. That’s the most meaningful information for parents,” Smith added.

On the surface, this all may seem like some superfluous data-geek conversation. It is not. This is also not about Catania, as some have contended — although his history of strong oversight was one reason I and others advocated for his appointment as committee chairman. Were it not for him, OSSE’s actions might have remained a secret.

This debate is about the public’s right to know and the role it should play in education reform. District residents have made significant financial investments in the city’s six-year-old education reform movement. Parents have placed their children in city schools with the promise of receiving a quality education. Surely they have earned the right to be treated as partners, not nebulous stakeholders.

“If they only notified [the public], which other states have done, it would have made all the difference,” said Monica Warren-Jones, a member of the D.C. State Board of Education, which doesn’t supervise OSSE staff. She cited New York as an example of a jurisdiction where a switch to a tougher system resulted in proficiency declines; parents received warnings and explanations.

“The fact it happened [in D.C.] after the test scores came in made it all the more disturbing,” added Warren-Jones.

“OSSE appears to have the mind-set that [it] can’t trust parents; that there is no confidence they could possibly understand, interpret or reason with the full information provided,” said Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), a member of the education committee.

At Catania’s instigation, the OSSE released this week so-called “alternative test scores,” using the new grading system. According to the agency spokesperson, the combined citywide reading scoresfor D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and charters were higher — 52 percent proficient instead of the 49.5 percent released this summer — but the math scores were much lower — 45.5 percent proficient instead of 53 percent.

Catania said he was happy the “correct scores” were released. “I believe you fix issues by facing them,” he said. “You don’t change the rules when no one’s looking.”

OSSE also kept key education leaders in the dark. Smith said she knew nothing of Noel’s decision until Catania and The Post’s Emma Brown began investigating. Why was a bureaucrat, just a few weeks in his position, allowed to take such significant action without prior approval from the interim state superintendent or the deputy mayor?

A spokesperson for the Public Charter School Board said that body also didn’t know of the change. DCPS spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz didn’t respond to multiple requests for a comment. But in a Sept. 30 letter posted on the District’s Web site, Chancellor Kaya Henderson seemed to downplay the issue, offering that “the most important assessment tool I ever use is my own eyes.”

Seriously?

Each year, thousands of District parents make education decisions using standardized test scores. They make assumptions about schools based on rates of proficiency because officials in the mayor’s office, at OSSE, at the DCPS and charter schools have trained them to think and act that way.

This episode has raised questions about the efficacy of such data. Equally important, it has further injured the relationship between parents and the Gray administration. Fortunately, that hasn’t escaped Smith: “We have to be much more proactive about getting people involved in the process.”

Can someone say amen?

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

 
Read what others are saying