It all began with good news. On August 17, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education touted gains from last year on the PARCC exam—short for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—for economically disadvantaged students in grades 3 through 8. OSSE reported that those students improved by 9.2 percentage points in English language arts and 6.4 percentage points in math in terms of their readiness to perform at the next grade level from 2016 to 2017.
DCPS and Mayor Muriel Bowser chimed in with upbeat press releases. But in mid-September, according to school officials, The Washington Post found a clerical error: At Alice Deal, a well-attended, sought after middle school, OSSE counted all students as economically disadvantaged, when in fact many at that school are not disadvantaged at all. The mistake raised the aggregated scores that applied to lower income DCPS students, who already are improving at a slower rate than their middle and upper-middle class peers.
The error was significant enough that it inflated scores of disadvantaged students throughout DCPS.
The Post did not report the error at the time. Instead, it informed OSSE, which claims to have discovered the error themselves just 48 hours earlier. After confirming the results, OSSE posted corrected figures on its web page and informed education agency heads on September 27, according to a spokesperson. In reality, the test scores of disadvantaged DCPS students had improved, but by much less: 5.2 percentage points in English language arts and 3.2 percentage points in math.
Meantime, DCPS updated its own database and informed Deal and its stakeholder community of the mistake. Neither OSSE nor DCPS took steps, however, to alert the general public to the error—or the correction. That was left to The Post, which reported last week that “economically disadvantaged students still made gains over the previous year but not as much as first reported because of the coding mistake.” (DCPS revised its original press release rather than issuing a new one, though it is not clear when.)
The Deal flub appears to be just that—a flub, with no causal link to the District’s growing achievement gap among black and white students. But it called attention to what many see as a longstanding misrepresentation of how economically disadvantaged students are performing on standardized tests, and it drew the ire of school board members and education observers who are tired of education leaders pushing a narrative that obscures an entrenched problem.
“We’re not closing the gap, and we’re not looking deeply enough at the data,” says Joe Weedon, Ward 6 representative to the D.C. State Board of Education, who did not know about the Deal error until getting a call from Loose Lips. “Student growth on test scores is being fueled by demographics, not raising the achievement of those in need.”
“Whom are we fooling?” asks Mary Levy, a respected budget expert who has been watching school officials fiddle with the way they report the data for years.
OSSE claims it acted appropriately in the Deal case. “We immediately worked to produce accurate and verified information,” says Director of Communications Patience Peabody. “We are not hiding anything. On the contrary, we have been as transparent as possible. In situations like this, it’s important for those who it affects the most to learn about it first. In this case, DCPS and Deal leadership. In addition to correcting the data quickly, we communicated the update broadly on our PARCC webpage, our results website, and in our education newsletter. We also communicated this to data managers at a training. We took a posture of transparency and will continue to do so.”
Levy has to chuckle. “Ever notice the more we talk about transparency, the less there is of it.”
Referring to the mess at Deal as “odd,” and “untransparent,” Ward 3 representative to the school board Ruth Wattenberg, who also was hearing about the Deal matter for the first time, says school officials for years have found ways to lump scores of disadvantaged students in with those of their more well-off counterparts who are progressing at a faster pace, thus muting the real progress of students most in need of extra resources and assistance.
“The way in which OSSE reports the scores—and the way in which all the educational institutions spin them—are misleading in multiple ways. When students who are not disadvantaged get coded as disadvantaged, as appears to be the case in many schools, the scores of disadvantaged students will seem higher than they genuinely are.”
Jack Jacobson, the Ward 2 representative to the school board, downplays the deal at Deal as an isolated incident, but concedes, “We continue to not serve the minority and disadvantaged population and put resources where they could do the most good. Ten years after reform has begun, achievement gaps persist at levels that are unacceptable.”
Jacobson denied knowledge of the Deal mistake when LL first called, but called back a short time later with details on the matter. Sources say all school board members received formal notice of the error—after The Post reported it.
For Weedon, it’s a matter of school officials in the District not only owning up to mistakes such as the one at Deal, but of being honest with the public about the true nature of reform. “I am deeply concerned about the lack of transparency and on-going lack of oversight of our public education systems, and I wish the [school board] had more authority to support the changes our city needs to see,” he says. “I’m more concerned that our education systems are continuing to fail our most vulnerable students. Until our education systems are open and transparent, parents and community members will continue to mistrust them. The misleading use of data and the positive spin on limited achievement gains continues to undermine efforts to give education reform the urgency that it needs.”