DC’s Math Gains Appear Only After Dropping Tougher Grading Scale

Although recent gains in math and reading tests recorded in Washington D.C. were trumpeted by education officials as a vindication of the district’s approach to academics, according to a detailed analysis of the results, the gains might be illusory. In reality, students actually got fewer correct answers on this year’s tests than they did on last year’s, and the resulting increase in scores was only possible because officials rejected a tougher grading scale recommended by the District’s teachers.

The decision to disregard the grading scale recommendations came after internal analysis showed that using it would produce substantial decline in math proficiency rates. The choice to stick with last year’s scale was made quietly, behind the scenes and weeks after the students took the exams in April and May.

Six weeks after the decision was taken, education leaders held a jubilant press conference touting the improving scores.

Experts said that the District’s approach is generally a reasonable one but that it does not track with those of other jurisdictions that have made recent high-profile transitions to tougher tests, including New York, Kentucky and Virginia. In those states, more-difficult tests and tougher scoring resulted in students’ scores immediately plummeting. Officials in those states presented the lower scores as a temporary price that must be paid to spur higher expectations and more rigorous instruction.

In the District, the discarded grading scale would have yielded a mixed picture of achievement on the 2013 tests. The reading proficiency rate would have been 6.6 points higher than was reported in 2012, but math would have been 3.6 points lower.

Charlene Rivera, an education researcher at George Washington University, explained that the nature of proficiency makes such tinkering fairly commonplace because it involves making judgments that are subjective in nature. The temptation to sometimes adjust the results is occasionally too tempting for officials to ignore.

The choices about which grading scale to use came to light only after documents and emails were analyzed by The Washington Post.

According to the Post’s Emma Brown, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the agency responsible for dropping the teacher-suggested scale in favor of the one used last year, explained their reasoning by saying that using different systems would have made assessing student progress from year to year more difficult.

Although some states have also decided to hold the degree of difficulty constant from year to year, the District school system did so without publicly explaining its choice of scoring standards. Many educators accept that lower scores will result from more rigorous standards, such as those most states have adopted under the Common Core State Standards, whose tests will be rolled out in the District in 2015. Virginia’s new Standards of Learning tests, for example, showed a decline this past year.