DC Officials Justify Use of Easier Grading Formula as Reasonable

In response to a Washington Post investigation showing that most of Washington's recent highly-touted academic gains were due to the district using a more forgiving grading formula on the latest round of standardized exams, district officials have defended the approach as perfectly valid. In a D.C. Council meeting held last week, officials reiterated the explanations they provided to the Post upon the story's publication: that the formula was deliberately used to make year-to-year comparisons of student achievement simpler.

District administrators were less clear about why their choice to use the formula – done against the advice of district teachers – was made so far out of the public eye. In contrast, the year-to-year growth numbers obtained thanks to the easier grading approach were extensively publicized with press conferences and press releases.

Another grading scale, which educators developed to reflect proficiency on tests newly aligned to tougher Common Core academic standards, would have yielded a larger gain in reading but a decline in math. District officials decided not to use that scale after seeing how it would affect scores.

"We need to communicate much better to all stakeholders, and you can be assured that next year's [test score announcement] will be a very different rollout with a great deal more outreach," said Emily Durso, interim leader of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers citywide standardized tests for the District's public schools.

Washington Post's Emma Brown reports that to calm the controversy, Durso announced that the district will publish school-by-school proficiency rates based on the tougher formula initially backed by the teachers. But despite Durso's assurances that the decision made by officials were completely reasonable, at least one lawmaker – David A. Catania, the chairman for the Education Committee — wasn't satisfied.

"Honest government would have used the professionally developed cut scores to give children an honest assessment about where they stand," Catania said, referring to the minimum scores students need to be deemed proficient in a subject. Based on the city's decision, students who had fewer correct answers on this year's more challenging math tests could have been shown as having improved over last year.

Catania argued that the content of the new tests was so different from previous tests that "proficiency" no longer means what it did before. The District's test vendor is developing a definition of the skills needed for proficiency on the 2013 tests.

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