Wilson High School’s student newspaper, the Wilson Beacon, offered the first hints that new annual assessment tests (PARCC) would result in low scores for the school.
In a May 2, 2016 article, the student reports on a junior pulled out of his DC history class to take the PARCC geometry exam. The issue? PARCC is supposed to test subjects the students are studying that year, and he had never even taken geometry at Wilson. Students also were scheduled to take the test at the same time as their Advanced Placement exams. As The Beacon reporters write:
Once Wilson staff noticed the changes in the number of students testing, Ashley Sobrinksi, Wilson’s testing coordinator, called the central office to explain that these upperclassmen are not currently enrolled in the classes they would be tested on. “We were told we still had to test those students,” Sobrinksi said.
Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 member of the DC State Board of Education, writes here about how she thinks it happened.
As I explain below, these scores cannot and should not be regarded as valid for concluding anything about achievement at either school. Validity requires that there is something constant, known and relevant about the students taking the test this year and last. In the case of these two schools, these conditions are absent.
One idea about why the scores dropped – offered by Chancellor Kaya Henderson, according to the Washington Post – is that many high-performing students didn’t take the test or didn’t try hard because they and their parents weren’t sufficiently aware of its importance. Another argument, made at the press conference releasing the citywide scores, attributes it to poor handling of administrative issues (artfully worded so that blame is diffuse and no one is held accountable).
A new Post article interviews students who say they were more concerned with doing well on their AP tests, which were scheduled during the same time frame. I’ve also heard it suggested that this is the beginning of an opt-out movement in DC, with parents and students just blowing the test off, as some communities elsewhere have done.
I don’t think any of these, on their own, are the primary cause for the score drop. And some of these reasons sound an awful lot like efforts to shift the accountability for the problem to the students and schools, and away from the agencies responsible, as explained next.
A more likely cause
Students at Wilson and Walls were inexplicably assigned to take exams for courses in which they weren’t enrolled. DCPS did not correct the problem, then allowed many exemptions, and problems ensued. Here’s what happened and the context for it.
First, across the country, where PARCC is used, students are supposed to take the PARCC exams that correspond to the classes they are enrolled in. So, in the upper grades, where students from multiple grades may take the same course (9th, 10th and 11th graders may all be enrolled in geometry, for example), students are supposed to take the exam that corresponds to the course they are enrolled in: Algebra 1 students should take the Algebra 1 exam, geometry students the geometry exam, English 2 students the English 2 exam, etc.
If students aren’t enrolled in a course with a corresponding PARCC test (e.g. an AP English test, statistics, etc.), they aren’t supposed to take a PARCC test. This is how it is done in Maryland and New Jersey – and it’s how PARCC recommends that it should be done.
Second, for reasons that remain unclear and unexplained, DCPS did something else: It assigned students to take exams in courses that they were not enrolled in, which struck many people, rightly, as quite nonsensical. How is it useful for a student who took geometry in 8th or 9th grade to take a test in it in 12th grade?
Third, school officials asked the central office to reassign students, so that they weren’t being asked to take an irrelevant test “wrong” test. Parents raised the problem as well. I raised the problem multiple times with DCPS and with the state education agency (OSSE). The concerns of school officials and parents were ignored; DCPS refused to change it. DCPS and OSSE blamed each other for the problem. (DCPS claims that they were required by OSSE to do what they were doing. OSSE claims that DCPS chose to do it this way, despite OSSE’s contrary recommendation, but that OSSE couldn’t prevent it. I can’t say which is actually the case).
What I can say is that both agencies understood the problem. Each blamed the other; neither solved the problem.
Fourth, in an apparent acknowledgement that the practice was wrong, DCPS made clear (to any parent who asked) that it would exempt from the test any mis-assigned student whose parent asked for such an exemption, further assuring that the testing sample for this year would be so questionable that scores from this year could in no way be used to compare student achievement with the previous year’s.
Fifth, DCPS never publicly acknowledged the problem, never reassigned students, and has known since spring that participation would be both low and random. Therefore, it knew that whether the scores were extra high or extra low, they would be invalid. OSSE knew all of this as well. It’s a mystery to me why these scores were reported at all.
The real reasons
As my mother always said: There are reasons – and real reasons. It is true that many students chose not to take the tests – and that many families supported their decision. It is also true that DCPS enabled these exemptions. But, it seems like the real reason for the low participation and low effort was an official approach to the tests that was entirely dismissive of good practice, common sense and reasonable complaints. That led many students and families in these schools to lose their faith in the credibility and usefulness of the city’s testing system.
If we want families and students to support and participate in the testing program – and I very much do – the authorities need to do their part to make it a credible system worth everyone’s time.
Take heart in the knowledge that these scores do not in any way indicate that achievement at Walls or Wilson has dropped!
Of course, since the scores are in effect meaningless, we don’t know that scores haven’t dropped, either. If folks at the schools have concerns that shifts in programming, budget or anything else have effected achievement, these issues should be carefully examined.
The need for greater responsiveness – and the search for a new chancellor
Final note: I have heard from many people, both parents and staff – from all over the city – about DCPS’s increasing lack of responsiveness to concerns and issues raised by school communities. That kind of insularity produces bad decisions. In this case, the result is unusable test scores. In other cases, the result is that students get a lesser-quality education.
This is why, in discussions around hiring a new Chancellor, I have been very clear: It is vital that the mayor hire someone who is committed to taking seriously the voices of school communities—parents, students and staff. People at the school level have an intimate understanding of how issues are playing out. They see problems that can’t be seen by a central office. That doesn’t mean that the school level people are always right or can always be accommodated; we are a citywide system. But, there needs to be a balance. Increasingly, DCPS has been acting in ways that have willfully neglected and rejected the input and information from school communities.
Hiring someone who can help find the right balance should be a priority of the mayor.
Ruth Wattenberg is Ward 3’s elected representative on the DC State Board of Education. Learn more about her work with the school system at ruth4schools.com.