Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The D.C. State Board of Education will vote tomorrow on a plan to implement school accountability standards that have education stakeholders chomping at the bit.

The proposal, drafted by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), bases 70 percent of school accountability measurement for elementary and middle schools on standardized tests in reading and math, and 20 percent on “school climate measures” such as attendance, truancy, and re-enrollment. Half of the remaining 10 percent is based on gains in English-language development and half on “holistic curriculum” such as science, social science, and art.

Once approved, the standards will be implemented at the state level under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which calls for an accountability system that is broader than the standardized math and reading tests of No Child Left Behind.

Educational traditionalists have shown up at public meetings in droves to oppose the proposed standards, according to attendees, and to express a desire to see school quality measures move even farther away from standardized tests such the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). These critics contend that the plan neglects at-risk and low-performing students and discourages attention to subjects other than math and reading. (A City Paperinvestigation last year showed that D.C.’s lowest-performing schools as determined by the PARCC exam lag behind schools with fewer at-risk students, creating a substantial achievement gap that has vexed school officials for years.)

Ward 3 school board member Ruth Wattenberg says standardized test scores have merit, but she doesn’t believe a heavy emphasis as OSSE proposes will yield a reliable measure of school quality. “Part of any good accountability system is whether it steers the institutions it measures to do the things that lead to the good end result,” Wattenberg says. “The proposed system doesn’t do that adequately. I’d love to see us measure whether a school provides all kids a well-rounded education and whether school climate is engaging, challenging, safe. This proposal neglects that.”

Wattenberg is expected to vote against the proposal, perhaps joined by fellow board members Joe Weedon and Markus Batchelor, though Loose Lips is hearing they are heavily outnumbered on the nine-member board. And if that’s the case, a well-coordinated lobbying effort might have something to do with it.

LL reported recently about a phone-banking campaign by D.C. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), the local branch of a national PAC with offices in New York. Residents around the city received calls on behalf of DFER informing them that OSSE’s goal is to hold schools accountable not just for student academic achievement but also growth, regardless of where they started. Callers then asked if they could connect the residents to their respective board members.

In addition to its phone-banking effort, DFER raised and spent close to $300,000 in the recent election cycle, according to campaign finance records, but with just a small percentage aimed at a board of education race. In a recent letter to the board signed by some 50 public and public charter school parents, policymakers, civil rights advocates, and current and former education officials, the PAC showed it also has influential support for its policy positions.  

“We believe the District’s plan, on the whole, will create a more transparent, equitable, and effective accountability system for the District’s children,” they wrote. “The plan will create an apples-to-apples comparison of all public schools in the District, primarily based on how much students are learning and growing on research-based measures of college readiness. As education and civil rights leaders, we have seen time and again the importance of transparency around public school performance in order to hold our city leaders accountable for serving our highest-need student populations.”

A nuance of the debate over standards is that OSSE’s original proposal based 80 percent of school accountability on student test scores, leading critics to conclude that it focused entirely on proficiency, according to D.C. DFER director Catharine Bellinger. But, Bellinger says, half of that percentage is based on student growth, which measures progress from year to year: “Parents care about the progress students make year to year, but they also want to know about whether a student is college-ready. Because you could have your child in a high-growth school but potentially never reach college-readiness if the school isn’t growing fast enough. So you want to see both and make sure both are reflected.”

Signatories to the DFER letter urge the board to approve OSSE’s plan, given that it does not “obscure the picture of school quality” by including too many non-academic measures and does not include accountability indicators that cannot be measured separate from other indicators or are susceptible to bias. No plan is perfect, Bellinger says, but this one is a vast improvement over No Child Left Behind.

“D.C. had a common system under No Child, but people basically ignored it because it was confusing and opaque,” she says. “OSSE is actually creating a dramatic improvement to comply with federal law. The plan clearly states what components go into school ratings, and it makes growth more important than it was in relation to just proficiency.”

Bellinger speaks the language of compromise, which LL notes is easy to do when you’re winning the debate. “This is a plan that has something for everyone to like or not like, which sometimes makes for good policy,” she says. “Sometimes everyone has to give a little something, including us.” (Asked how DFER has compromised, Bellinger gamely points to a 10-point reduction of emphasis on standardized test scores and a 5 percent weight measure for “holistic curriculum,” which she finds unmeasurable.)

Now, if all of this sounds wonky, LL can sympathize. So can parents. For many, it comes down to clarity and choice. Perhaps an overlooked aspect of the debate is that, for the first time, a system of accountability and reporting applies to both public and public charter schools. “I’m behind the proposal because it allows me to get a clearer picture as a parent as to how my kid’s school is doing, so I can go looking for another if need be,” says Ward 7 resident Raymond Weeden, a former charter school principal with elementary school children in both sectors. “It’s hard to do that now, because the two systems are not transferable, and you have to know where to look. It’s not apples to apples.”  

Not everyone’s mind is so made up, however, and public input can be tricky to gauge— particularly when tactics akin to a political campaign are employed. Matthew Frumin, founder of D.C. Schools and Communities and a former advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 3, senses the need to slow down and work toward greater consensus. “My sense is that there is no good reason to rush this through absent a showing of some significant, visible public support,” Frumin says, who characterizes “the vast majority of witnesses” as being opposed to it. He says the board will “undermine its standing as representatives of the public if it pushes it through. On the other hand, even if members think the proposal is good, why not take the time to build support around it and/or work with stakeholders to improve it. It seems to me that it does not work to say ‘in fact lots of people support the proposal, they just did not bother to testify at the hearing soliciting public input.’”  

Odds are the clock on public debate is about to run out. And according to a statement from the office of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, at least half of the education sector is fine with that: “DCPS believes in strong accountability, including measuring all schools on the PARCC assessment, so families and students have valuable information on how all schools are doing. We also believe it is important to have a universal accountability system for DCPS and D.C. Public Charter Schools. The accountability system under consideration by the State Board of Education includes critical measures of achievement and school climate. We are pleased to see the changes that prioritize academic growth over academic status.

“We support the current plan, and we recognize that a strong accountability plan will always require changes as we learn more over the coming years. The city must continue to stress the importance of school climate growth, including how schools address student discipline.”