Really? (Graph: www.dc.gov) Really? (Graph: www.dc.gov)

Back in July, D.C. officials shouted out the news that public school students had earned the district’s highest-ever reading and math test scores, results that moved D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray to say:

I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re on the right path. We just need to stay the course.

Maybe not. My colleague Emma Brown wrote in this story that the “historic” citywide results on the most recent annual math and reading standardized test scores, known as the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, were nothing more than a consequence of a secret decision about how to score the exams.

Here’s what happened: Many school districts around the country are now giving students new standardized tests that are aligned with the newly implemented Common Core State Standards, said to be tougher than most earlier state standards. The new exams are being graded on a tougher, scale, too. But, it turns out, not in the District.  After the new tests were taken this past spring — and after it became clear that scores would drop like a rock under a teacher-recommended new grading plan — D.C. officials in the Office of the State Superintendent for Education, which is separate from the school system — decided to keep the old, easier scoring model grading system, Brown discovered through documents she obtained.

The revelations rattled David Catania, the head of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, so much that he has now accused the Office of the State Superintendent for Education of deliberately manipulating test scores and called their actions a “form of cheating.” Brown wrote in this story that Catania spoke out at a hearing Tuesday:

“OSSE was content with misleading the public,” said Catania, who interrupted the session several times to challenge officials’ version of events and to question Gray’s “fist-pumping ceremony” announcing test score gains in July.

 

The District is hardly the first place in the country where officials have abruptly changed the standard of what “proficiency” means on a standardized test.

Florida officials last year were so unnerved by the results of a new standardized writing tests for students in various grades that when they realized that only 27 percent of fourth-graders had scored “proficient,” they just changed the meaning of “proficient.”  Just last month, New York state officials managed to predict the exact percentage drop in scores on new Common Core-aligned exams before the tests were even given to students! This year in Oklahoma, the superintendent of public instruction, Janet Barresi unilaterally changed the “cut scores” on state standardized tests to make it harder to pass, including for high school seniors who needed to pass to graduate. In this piece in the Tulsa World, Kevin Burr, a district superintendent and chairman of the Tulsa Council of Area School Administrators, said she made her decision “arbitrarily.”

What does all this mean? Standardized test scores tell us as much about where officials decide to set “cut scores” — the point where a student is deemed to be performing at different levels — as how well a student really does. There is no science behind it. Yet students and teachers and principals and schools and districts are being judged by these scores anyway.

Catania has long thought that standardized test scores were actually an honest measure of how well a school was educating its student. Now he has changed his mind about how these scores should be used. From his lips to the ears of all the other test score-obsessed score reformers around the country.