By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 10:55 PM
Rising standardized test scores, often cited by D.C. officials as evidence of an improving school system, are of limited value in determining whether students are actually learning more, according to the first major independent study of D.C. school reform.
That conclusion, part of a report issued Friday by the National Research Council, is likely to drive new debate about the testing-centered culture of D.C. schools and other systems across the country. While the testing data contain encouraging signs, the widely quoted averages of citywide performance say little about the quality of teaching and learning.
"Looking at test scores should be only a first step - not an endpoint - in considering questions about student achievement, or even more broadly, about student learning," the study said.
The council is the research arm of the National Academies, and its report is the first in a series of evaluations required by the 2007 law that placed the city's long-troubled public schools under mayoral control. Researchers said that while the city has made "a good faith effort" to implement the Public Education Reform Amendment Act, it is premature to draw sweeping conclusions about its effect on student achievement.
The District became a national staging area for urban school reform under then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who appointed Michelle A. Rhee as the city schools' first chancellor hours after taking control of the system. She resigned in October, after more than three years on the job, and was succeeded on an interim basis by her deputy, Kaya Henderson.
Fenty and Henderson could not be reached for comment. Rhee declined to comment.
Reading and math scores on the District's two main tests, the annual D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (D.C. CAS) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have shown what the report describes as "modest improvement" under Rhee and her predecessor, former superintendent Clifford Janey, although elementary-grade scores fell in 2010.
But researchers said the city must develop a more sophisticated capacity to track individual students who shift from traditional public schools to public charter schools, or in some cases drop out of the system entirely. The city also needs a firmer grasp on rapidly changing neighborhood demographics and their impact on academics. "In the meantime, naive aggregate comparison of test scores among race-ethnic groups in the District should be interpreted critically and cautiously," the study said.
The study received an enthusiastic greeting from critics, who say heavy emphasis on testing has narrowed curricula and warped classroom creativity.
"This report is a shot over the bow of politicians seeking to reform education in this incredibly narrow way," said Mary Lord, a member of the D.C. State Board of Education and mother of a junior at Wilson High School.
Former deputy mayor for education Victor Reinoso, who served under Fenty, agreed that better data are needed and that the city is committed to expanding the base of available information. But he added that test scores remain important "consumer or market indicators" for parents who have to make immediate decisions about where to enroll their children.
"I appreciate that the folks involved in this research are academics and they are going to want to see more and more proof," he said. "I just think that what we have to do is balance the need for the quest for perfection in data analysis with the practical reality that the schools are responsible for educating thousands of kids every day. So we can't sit back and wait for an answer."
In 2009, after months of political squabbling and stalemate, Fenty and then-D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who is now the mayor, settled on the National Research Council as the independent evaluator for the school system under mayoral control.
The committee assembled by the research council includes a number of prominent scholars and practitioners, including University of California at Berkeley law school dean Christopher Edley Jr., University of Wisconsin sociologist Robert M. Hauser, former Long Beach and San Diego school superintendent Carl A. Cohn and Jon Fullerton, head of Harvard University's Center for Education Policy and Research.
The focus of this initial study is a series of suggestions on how the city might develop a system evaluating its schools. It said such an effort should be continuous, involve local stakeholders and dig more deeply into data surrounding the question of whether children in all parts of the city are realizing benefits from the schools' overhaul. The inquiry should also be independent of school and city leaders.
One method the study suggested was a partnership with a university or other outside institution. As an example, it cited the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, a partnership between the Baltimore school system and researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Morgan State University.
As it stands, the District's gathering and handling of data about schools remain fragmented and incomplete. The study found that the District (along with other big-city school systems) collected significant amounts of information never made public, including promotion rates, student and parent perspectives on instruction, and measures of professional culture.
The data points more likely to land in public view, researchers said, "served to highlight the positive achievements of the district."