Muriel Bowser
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser discusses student performance. (WI photo)

During a news conference at Bancroft Elementary School in Northwest this month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a third consecutive year of gains on the PARCC assessment, a measurement of college readiness in math and English that determines the effectiveness of each public and charter school.

The mayor’s portrayal of systemwide academic progress, however, has incited concerns among some elected officials, parents and students who say that she has overlooked issues of student testing anxiety and, more importantly, significant gaps in foundational knowledge of core subjects.

“Over the past several months, much of what we thought we knew about our schools has been called into question, from graduation rates, to student attendance, school suspensions, standardized test scores and enrollment rates,” D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), a proponent of legislation dealing with testing data, told The Washington Informer in an email Friday.

In April, Cheh and six other council members introduced the District of Columbia Education Research Advisory Board and Collaborative Establishment Amendment Act of 2018. If passed, the bill would establish a research advisory board and collaborative under which District school data and collection policies will be audited and long-term student progress will be measured.

The research advisory board, according to the bill, would support the collaborative in the data collection and auditing process, report to the D.C. Council on policy-related issues and seek grants from individuals, foundations and granting institutions.

While explaining the research advisory board and collaborative on the Aug. 17 edition of “The Kojo Nnamdi Show: The Politics Hour” with host Tom Sherwood, Cheh noted gripes among constituents about the quality of instruction in some D.C. schools.

“We need to start now to rebuild public trust and, more importantly, get a full and accurate picture of what is going on in our schools,” Cheh said. “We need non-politicized, longitudinal research to provide meaningful analysis to our schools, thereby equipping those schools with the information and tools they need to promote student success.”

Questions About Testing Culture

This year’s report, compiled by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, revealed an increase of at least two percentage points among students between the third and eighth grades who scored a four or five in the English/language arts and math sections of the PARCC assessment.

Citywide, the percentage of high school students who scored a four or five in the English Language Arts section increased by two points within the same time period, while the percentage of students in the same group who scored the same on the math portion increased by less than one percent.

In total, one out of three D.C. students met or exceeded expectations for grade-level learning in English/language arts, while less than 30 percent did the same for math, alluding to what critics characterized as the Executive Office of the Mayor’s dishonest interpretation of student progress that ignores a lack of preparedness for life beyond high school.

For some parents, that harsh reality shows less about the students and more about the priorities of D.C. schools under mayoral control. For example, Sherice Muhammad, the mother of a McKinley Technology High School student and ANC commissioner in Ward 7, told The Informer that the narrow focus on scores disadvantages students who, instead of mastering essential skills, only practice to the test.

When asked about the possibility of an independent auditor compiling and interpreting testing data, Muhammad expressed her support for the idea, going further in endorsing the reinstatement of a superintendent committed to placing students on a path to higher education, not to currying public favor.

“Right now, we should focus on steady growth with a superintendent who is credentialed and skilled to do away with what has been proven ineffective,” said Muhammad, commissioner of ANC single-member district 7D06 who is seeking re-election.

Muhammad said that throughout much of last year, she advised a 10th-grader on a biotechnology track at McKinley in Northeast to use education as a means to advance her life goals.

“True education begins with instilling character and a strong moral compass,” she said. “Discipline and hard work are essential to the acquisition of knowledge. The school objective has become teaching to the test, which is a complete failure regarding the long-term effects of a shortsighted objective.”

PARCC, as Told by Students and Teachers

For other D.C. residents, including a charter school student in Northwest who agreed to speak to The Informer on the condition of anonymity, PARCC test scores, manipulated or not, don’t paint an accurate picture of ability.

The 11th-grader recounted what she described as one of the most emotionally and mentally trying times of her academic career.

“The PARCC exam intimidated me, [not only] because of the expectations coming from my teachers and school, but the feeling of falling behind my peers,” the 16-year-old student said.

While she didn’t question council members’ intention, the student said the proposed research advisory board and collaborative would add another level of scrutiny and pressure for students, many of whom haven’t fully embraced PARCC.

“If the D.C. Council wants to make an independent institution for the sole purpose of measuring the test results, it will lead to the students’ answers to be more criticized and strictly analyzed,” she said. “It might be more difficult for students to get high scores because now we will have to focus not only on getting scores that will meet the school’s expectations, but also the council’s, making us feel more stressed than ever before.”

Each section of the PARCC assessment measures mastery in five levels, with the fourth and fifth indicating preparedness for college and postsecondary career programs. In an Aug. 16 press release, the Executive Office of the Mayor reported an increase of 8.5 percentage points in English/language arts and 7.3 percentage points in math over three years, though it didn’t specify if those gained occurred among students who scored a four or five.

In 2010, the District joined, at the time, nearly 25 states in administering the PARCC assessment, a product of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, a group that, with the help of more than 200 postsecondary instructors and administrators, provides computerized standardized tests based on the K-12 Common Core standards.

Since then, the PARCC assessment has driven instruction in D.C. public and charter schools, with administrators aligning their yearly goals with it. Teachers have also borne the brunt of test preparation, crafting lesson plans in anticipation of the PARCC. In some schools, instructors dole out biweekly short cycle assessments to students experiencing testing fatigue.

“There’s anger and annoyance around PARCC testing because it takes so much,” said a teacher in her sixth year at a Northwest public high school, also on the condition of anonymity. “It’s too exhausting and it takes weeks to get through all the other testing [including AP and standardized tests]. Schools also change schedules and planning periods for trainings about proctoring and administering tests.”

The PARCC exam has no bearing on whether a student is promoted to the next grade level, raising questions about its significance, the teacher added.

To address that issue, some schools in recent years have incentivized enthusiasm by tying results to eligibility for Advanced Placement classes, hosting pep rallies in the days leading up to the assessment and giving homework passes for students who attend school on testing days.

“Students don’t like these tests, but they’ll put in that effort and do it through all the complaining,” the teacher said as she reflected on her experiences with the DC CAS, the PARCC exam’s predecessor. “It was the same at the previous school I worked in — they tolerated it and got used to it. I don’t think it’s anxiety [that the students have]. It’s not understanding why we have to do it and spend so much time preparing for the test.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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