What gets tested, it’s said, gets taught—and by the same token, what doesn’t get tested gets ignored. Want proof? Just look at how the school curriculum has shriveled since the advent of high-stakes testing in reading and math fifteen years ago. Now DC has a chance to reverse some of that unintended damage. And it’s about to blow that chance.
The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), has given states (and DC) more freedom to use measures beyond reading and math scores in ranking their public schools, including charters. Under the old law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the only measure of quality was the percentage of students who scored proficient on state tests.
That approach highlighted the difference in scores between affluent white students and low-income minority students. But it also sparked a backlash against over-testing and excessive test prep—which led to the enactment of its replacement, ESSA, in 2015.
ESSA calls for states to come up with new accountability plans and allows them to add measures other than reading and math scores. And yet DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) wants to base a full 80% of the rating for middle and elementary schools on (wait for it …) reading and math scores.
What else does OSSE propose to measure? Factors like attendance, re-enrollment, and—for high schools—graduation rates. Nothing about whether a school is actually teaching science, social studies, or art.
Reading tests actually measure general knowledge
This may sound like a wonky, abstruse debate. But it has huge real-world consequences. DC teachers have told me they feel pressure to focus on reading and math at the expense of social studies and science because reading and math are the tested subjects. Few realize that without the knowledge and vocabulary that come from social studies and science, their students are actually far less likely to do well on reading tests.
That’s because the passages on the tests usually have nothing to do with any content students have actually studied. They cover a variety of topics and purport to test students’ general reading skills: finding the main idea, making inferences, etc.
But students can’t demonstrate those skills if the passages are incomprehensible to them. Kids from well-educated families can usually acquire enough general knowledge at home to understand the passages. But most DC students rely largely on school to acquire that kind of knowledge.
If teachers focus on skills over content—as they’re especially likely to do at high-poverty schools—these students will probably never acquire enough knowledge and vocabulary to do well on reading tests.
DCPS officials have told me they’ve tried repeatedly to get the message across to teachers that spending time on skills won’t boost test scores. But as long as educators think students are being tested in reading rather than general knowledge—which is, essentially, what reading tests evaluate—it’s going to be hard for them to hear that message.
One DCPS 4th grade teacher told me that she’d like to focus more on content. “But there are no consequences attached to understanding or misunderstanding the content,” she said. “There’s no test.”
Teachers are far from alone in failing to see the connection between a broad, rich curriculum and success on test scores—not to mention in life. The Washington Post’s editorial board has applauded OSSE’s draft accountability plan, advising the DC State Board of Education to approve it, as is required before it can take effect—and inaccurately implying that the only opposition to the plan’s emphasis on test scores is coming from the teachers’ union.
“The board must stand firm on the principle that the best—and most accurate—way to hold schools accountable for student learning is to measure what students have actually learned,” the editors declared.
That sounds like a sensible principle. But the problem is that standardized tests aren’t designed to “measure what students have actually learned,” at least not in the sense of what they've learned in school. That isn’t possible under our current system, because students in various localities are all learning different content—or perhaps not learning any content at all.
How OSSE could send the message that content counts
Ideally, we would evaluate schools on what they had taught their students. That would send a clear message to teachers that content is important. It would not only level the playing field for kids who acquire less knowledge at home, it would also make school more fun for everyone. Not to mention that we live in a democracy, where it’s crucial for citizens to gain some knowledge of history and civics.
That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, but there are other things OSSE could do to encourage schools to focus on content. One DCPS official—Scott Abbott, the Director of Social Studies in the Office of Teaching and Learning—has suggested a “Well Rounded Education” index that would give schools credit for spending at least 100 minutes a week each on social studies, science, and “specials” like music and art.
The index would count for 10% of a school’s score. To allow for that, Abbott proposes reducing the percentage devoted to test proficiency from 40% to 30%. That would still leave 70% of an elementary or middle school’s rating dependent on test scores. DC State Board of Education member Ruth Wattenberg has also called for including a measure of academic well-roundedness. She advocates reducing the test-score percentage to between 60 and 65%.
Either proposal would be a start on the path away from a self-defeating curriculum of basic “skills” and towards a richer and more meaningful school experience for all DC public school students and their teachers.
Want to add your voice? OSSE is accepting public comments on its draft plan until March 3. You can email the agency at OSSE.ESSA@dc.gov or fill out a survey by following this link.
A version of this post appears at DCEduphile.org