Focus on Future Plans, Not Past Scandal, Says D.C. Council

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — April 22, 2013 4 min read
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As students and teachers in Washington’s public schools prepare for the district’s annual standardized tests, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System, which begin tomorrow, questions about testing improprieties in past years have yet to be resolved and seem likely to remain that way. At a hearing of the Council of the District of Columbia last week, councilmembers expressed concerns about cheating in the city’s schools, but were focused on establishing new security procedures rather than on investigating past incidents.

David Catania, who chairs the council’s education committee, has introduced legislation that would make cheating on standardized tests illegal. Councilmember David Grosso also requested that the school district submit information to the council about how it will attempt to prevent future cheating. (The Washington Post reported on Catania’s plans to introduce additional education legislation to regulate the city’s complex system of public and public charter schools.)

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said the school district has been improving its testing procedures each year, and a number of new procedures will be in place as testing begins this week.

The past has loomed large in recent weeks, after PBS NewsHour reporter John Merrow released a memo that indicates that as many as 70 schools in Washington were sites of testing improprieties in 2008. Then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee has denied that she saw the memo, according to the Los Angeles Times. Rhee’s pay-for-performance policies shook up the district’s education system and raised concerns that staff members were exploiting students’ test scores for personal financial gain. Here’s my colleague Lesli Maxwell’s take on Merrow’s recent documentary about Rhee.

At the hearing, Henderson said that she saw the memo for the first time this January. The memo highlighted high numbers of erasures at a number of schools, but Henderson said that the district had not investigated further after a number of external reviews and the district’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, or OSSE, indicated there was no need.

At last week’s hearing, Catania said that the trail of clues about what, exactly, happened in 2008 “runs cold” and that the district should focus on ensuring that proper plans are intact for future years. Catania said that his analysis of jumps in test scores at some schools that year seems to show that there was likely something fishy going on—but that we’ll likely “never know for sure what happened in 2008.”

Councilmember Grosso grew heated during the hearing and suggested that the school district has been too reactive in its approach to preventing cheating. Grosso also brought up concerns about the integrity of new assessments for the Common Core. In response, Henderson said that the fact that the assessment has not been finalized makes it impossible to have a comprehensive plan, but the school district’s system is ahead of many other places in the country in planning for those assessments.

Grosso wondered whether the district’s policy of rewarding teachers for higher tests scores might be connected to the allegations of cheating. Henderson disputed that contention, and also said she believed that standardized tests themselves were not the problem.

Meanwhile, Kenyan McDuffie, the council’s chair pro tempore, expressed concern about a report from Washington’s inspector general into cheating in the district that found that while there was room to improve the district’s testing policy, there was not evidence of a top-down scheme to scam the system. Most of that investigation focused on a single school, the Noyes Education Campus, even though the investigators’ office had access to the memo that suggests dozens more schools had irregularities. McDuffie called the investigation “woefully limited.”

The inspector general, Charles Willoughby, stood by the report. His office determined that high numbers of erasures were not enough to trigger investigations into additional schools. Here’s his testimony from last week.

Willoughy listed a number of recommendations for protecting the pen-on-paper tests currently in use. It’s unclear how many of those recommendations, which include giving students separate answer sheets for each day of testing, would be helpful for the new Common Core assessments, which are likely to be computerized and require a new suite of security measures.

While Henderson represented the District of Columbia Public Schools at the hearing, close to half of Washington’s students attend public charter schools that are not under the umbrella of the Washington school system. Henderson suggested that some of the councilmembers’ concerns about cheating and policies needed to be addressed by the OSSE rather than just the district’s traditional public school system.

Teachers in 18 classrooms Washington were found to be guilty of cheating in 2012, according to a statement from OSSE and the Post. About a dozen employees in Washington have lost their jobs due to cheating in the district over the past several years, Henderson said at the hearing, and several more have been disciplined.

At the meeting, both Catania and Willoughy were careful to mark a contrast between the situation in Washington, which they describe as being comprised of more isolated instances of cheating, and that in Atlanta, where staff members have been indicted for a conspiracy. Lawyers for the superintendent in Atlanta are contesting those charges. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports that two school administrators were recently removed from their positions after an investigation into cheating there.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.