Focus less on educators: It’s the tests that are failing DCPS

October 3, 2013

On Monday, D.C. Public Schools released the results of its first year of principal evaluations, and they weren’t pretty. More than half of the District’s 120 school leaders were rated below “effective.”

As the Washington Post’s Emma Brown reported: “Fourteen of the city’s 120 principals, more than 11 percent, were rated ‘highly effective’ and were eligible for bonuses of up to $30,000. About one-third were rated ‘effective,’ and the 8 percent who lost their jobs this past spring were rated ‘ineffective.’” All the rest were placed in the “developing” category.

This finding is curious for a number of reasons. Unlike the much-debated teacher evaluation scheme in the District, a “developing” rating doesn’t directly result in dismissal. Every principal in DCPS is on a one-year contract anyway, so they’re out the door as soon as Henderson gets tired of them. Yearly pay increases, however, can disappear for principals that fail to make the jump up to “effective.” DCPS Chancellor Henderson says it’s just a way to identify which administrators need the most attention and extra resources. But you’d think she’d know anyway. Almost every principal in DCPS today was hired either by Henderson or her predecessor Michelle Rhee.

These administrators aren’t just failing on Henderson’s terms, but their own as well. There are no common benchmarks for student test scores in principal evaluations. Instead, each administrator negotiates with the Chancellor at the beginning of each year, coming to an agreement on how much score growth they can expect. There are countless other factors involved—community outreach, school discipline, efficient operations, etc—but it’s clear the tests are what matter most in this district. An administrator can’t be ranked above “developing” if their test scores stay flat or fall.

Herein lies the real problem. For better or worse, testing is at the core of how administrators and policymakers understand our public schools. When scores go up, everyone celebrates, and when they don’t teachers and administrators are let go. But rarely do we take the time to analyze our measuring tool. In D.C., it leaves much to be desired.

The D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System is like the bubble tests most of us took in high school—a series of high pressure, multiple choice tests taken sometime in the spring. These tests are great for measuring certain types of subject matter, certains type of intelligence, but educational scholars worry they’re much too narrow. They can’t, for instance, measure artistic intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, real problem solving, or provide a worthwhile measure of writing prowess. In fact, they don’t even try. The D.C. CAS has two subject areas: math and reading. If the scores go up in those areas, the school, principal, and teachers are judged to be doing well. Other measures of academic growth or school culture are made subservient to the test.

So, what will happen now, with so many principals not making their testing targets? The easy answer is more narrowing of the educational experience in D.C. Administrators judged as being unsatisfactory will double down on their efforts to raise scores. In practice, this often means whole days and even entire classes devoted to D.C. CAS reading or math. Put simply, they will teach to the test more, and that means more rote memorization in the classroom, more assignments not designed to inspire deeper thinking, but rather directly constructed to beget better test scores. Since the school day is limited, sacrifices will have to be made. That means cuts in science, social studies, art, music, and physical education.

For some, this isn’t a problem. It’s obvious DCPS Central Office considers the CAS to be a reliable measure of academic growth, even with its limitations. And there are new tests coming down the pike anyway. With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards—a new set of national educational benchmarks—in the 2014-2015 school year, standardized tests in D.C. will be reshaped. The final tests are yet to be revealed, but many scholars are already worried they will be little better than the current system. Administered mostly by computer, they will require some student collaboration and more analytical thinking, but educational organizations like the Gordon Commission, a group of educational scholars brought together to analyze the Common Core, worry they won’t go far enough. In its report, the organization says improvement in the tests, “while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.”

D.C. can do better when it comes to testing. As anyone who’s taken an International Baccalaureate exam in high school knows, there are methods of standardized testing that a engage a larger set of student skills and intelligences. Deeper tests like these require longer investigations into subject matter, collaboration between students, and a variety of mediums of assessment—from oral examinations, to written tests and presentations. But testing in this way always requires one thing: more trust that teachers and principals can grade student achievement fairly. That’s been missing in the District for years now. Perhaps if Henderson would focus on developing a more comprehensive measuring stick for student achievement, she’d have to give teachers and principals the rod less.

Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice

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Susan K. Coti

Common Core Standards are a good thing, but the content is unfamiliar to most teachers and students. There needs to be more training of teachers for growth to occur. The teaching of math for example has students performing tasks in a novel way. It is the same material, but given to them (and the teachers) in a more conceptual manner that hasn’t been previously taught. I applaud the new rigor, but before we judge our students and our teachers we need to provide more in-depth training so that we can reach our goals.

In the school where I taught we were fortunate to have an internationally recognized math expert come in for a series of seminars (one per grade level for one afternoon). She opened my eyes to the beauty of mathematics, but then she was gone. We can’t expect teachers (and students) to incorporate this learning without a sustained level of training. I taught what I was taught by this leader, but it was too late. The test commenced a month later, and my students were rather lost as was I who only absorbed a small portion of the techniques she offered. I wanted more!

Teachers are working hard to give their best to students. This should be recognized and celebrated. It’s a hard road, and the administrators are also doing their best. Let’s not forget.