School & District Management

D.C. Success Must Go Beyond Test Scores, Study Says

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 15, 2011 4 min read
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The District of Columbia school system’s rising test scores won’t be enough to confirm the effectiveness of the nationally watched education overhaul guided by former Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, according to the district’s evaluator, and so far the District does not collect the comprehensive data needed to say whether the often-controversial policy changes should be permanent.

The National Research Council of the National Academies released the first of a series of contracted evaluations of the District’s Public Education Reform Amendment Act last week, just as Ms. Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson, officially took the reins of the 73,000-student-school system.

The 2007 reform measure transferred control of the city’s schools from an elected board to then-Mayor Adrien M. Fenty, created a state education agency and chancellor of schools, and instituted several organizational changes in the district, such as the creation of an ombudsman to which community members could bring complaints.

The NRC’s Committee on the Independent Evaluation of D.C. Public Schools calls for the district to collect data and report annually on a portfolio of indicators across all aspects of the district, including staff issues, student progress, and community engagement.

“The problem was the [test score] changes that seem to be going in the right direction can’t be attributed to the specific changes in the system,” said evaluation co-chairman Robert M. Hauser, the director of NRC’s division of behavioral and social sciences and education. “All districts should be cautious about generalizing from the kind of aggregate overview data that have been used to suggest successes of changes made in the district to date,” Mr. Hauser said.

Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, and Ms. Rhee, who were ousted, via election and resignation, last year in what was widely seen as a referendum on their school policies, have pointed to rising student scores in reading and mathematics on state achievement tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress to validate their legacy. On the District of Columbia’s test, the Comprehensive Assessment of Skills, the percentage of students proficient in math and reading began increasing in 2006, accelerated through 2009, and then flattened and began to decline in 2010.

NAEP showed similar improvements, with average scores in 4th grade math and reading and in 8th grade math significantly higher in 2009 than they had been in 2007. That track record also helped propel Ms. Rhee in December, after leaving her position as chancellor, to launch a national organization, called StudentsFirst, aimed at enabling “more aggressive” education reforms.

Demographic Changes

Yet the NRC evaluation task force said the test scores alone cannot prove students are learning better under the new policies, in part because Washington’s 45,000 traditional and 28,000 charter school student populations have changed since 2007. The district’s poverty rate rose from 63 percent in 2006 to 70 percent in 2010, and the numbers of students with disabilities or limited English proficiency fell during that time. The district also had fewer black students and more white and Hispanic students by 2010.

Moreover, the evaluators confirmed that students’ NAEP scores started to improve before the overhaul law passed, as noted in a report last month by Alan Ginsburg, the former director of policy and program studies for the U.S. Department of Education.

The law’s implementation has been mixed, the evaluators note. For example, the District’s new interagency commission has developed citywide strategies to improve children’s health and reduce truancy and school violence since the law passed. It also established an ombudsman in 2008 to resolve community concerns but eliminated the position’s funding in fiscal 2010.

To pave the way for more comprehensive evaluations, the District will have to beef up its longitudinal student-data system in a hurry. The system is not yet up and running, and it contains only six of the 10 elements considered essential by the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign. The state agency terminated its contract for the data system last year after slow progress and is in the middle of a search for a new group to oversee its data warehouse.

“Their capacity is better than it used to be but still not very strong,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, also based in Washington. “Most urban systems have data systems that are far more sophisticated than D.C.’s so they often can do evaluations of their systems and progress in ways that D.C. has not been able to do so far.”

The evaluators agreed. “What needs to be done is [to] look very closely at specific schools and specific areas,” Mr. Hauser said. “That’s the sort of thing a good indicator system can point out.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as D.C. Success Must Go Beyond Test Scores, Study Says

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