DFER D.C. Director Catharine Bellinger's Testimony to Support Proposed ESSA Implementation Plan

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

February 17, 2017


Good evening members of the State Board of Education. My name is Catharine Bellinger and I am testifying on behalf of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a national policy and advocacy organization that advocates for high-quality public schools for all children. I serve as our D.C. Director. I am testifying tonight to urge the State Board of Education to support the State Superintendent’s proposed ESSA implementation plan, particularly with regard to the proposed school accountability framework.

Over the past two years, DFER has been active in supporting provisions within the Every Student Succeeds Act (or ESSA) — as well as implementation of those provisions at the state level — that we believe are crucial to advancing equity and ensuring that the most vulnerable children receive the education they are entitled to. We are active in a coalition of child and civil rights advocates including the Education Trust, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Council of La Raza, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities. To quote from our recent coalition letter to Congress: “Our collective goals include:

  1. State-adopted standards aligned with the demands of postsecondary education and the workforce;
  2. Annual statewide assessment of all students in grades 3-8 and once again in high school, with a strictly limited exception for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities;
  3. Transparent, accessible reporting of data — disaggregated by race, income, disability status, and English proficiency — at the state, district, and school levels, so educators, parents, and students themselves have objective information on where they are on their journey to college and career readiness; and
  4. Statewide accountability systems that include achievement and graduation-rate goals for all groups of students, rate schools in large part on the academic performance of all groups of students, and require action when any group of students consistently underperforms.”1

Our policy team has carefully read through OSSE’s proposed state plan for DC, and we believe the DC plan meets — and in many ways exceeds — these four criteria.

We believe that the single summative score a school receives — from 1 to 5 stars, in the DC plan — should primarily reflect the academic performance of students on college and career-ready exams, such as PARCC. Why is this important? When a parent or policymaker looks at a star rating, the rating should demonstrate whether a school is meeting its primary mission of preparing children to succeed in college and in life. A recent Mathematica study in Massachusetts concluded that students’ PARCC scores are highly correlated with success in college. The researchers write: “We found that the PARCC exam predicts college grades: students with higher PARCC scores tend to receive higher grades in college.”2

We realize that questions around the weight of student test scores generate significant debate both in DC and nationally. However, if we are not honest with ourselves about how well our schools are educating children, across demographic groups — particularly in the crucial, foundational subjects of reading and math — we are reducing equity by distorting the picture of school performance. Both parents and policymakers deserve transparency around both a school’s academic performance overall and significant gaps in achievement and opportunity for low-income and minority children.

By and large, the DC parents with whom we speak have made clear they want a single, summative school rating that primarily reflects student academic outcomes. The Public Charter School Board and charter sector as a whole has heard repeatedly from parents about how effective the Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 system is for communicating quality to parents. Of course, the accountability framework as a whole can and should also provide families with a more holistic picture of a school’s program, while giving educators important data that drives improvement in classroom practice — this will be achieved through the DC state report cards, also mandated under ESSA.

We recognize there are those who fear an accountability system based primarily on PARCC proficiency and growth levels can lead to an overemphasis on test preparation. But it’s important to keep two things in mind. First, over-emphasis on test preparation is a phenomenon driven by adult responses — which need not occur — to the accountability system, as opposed to an involuntary response required by the system itself. Second, it’s a self-defeating response at that. The research is clear that the best way to raise student achievement is to de-emphasize test preparation and instead embrace a rich curriculum, engage students as active learners and critical thinkers, and teach students to master challenging content and skills.3

The answer to too much test preparation is not to reduce the weight of academic outcomes in the accountability framework — the answer is to select, support, and retain the best possible talent at the LEA and school level who can teach to mastery and beyond. We think our public schools are up to the challenge. Regardless, diminishing our expectations for academic results– or obscuring the picture of school quality we provide to parents — is not an acceptable option.

To conclude, we at Democrats for Education Reform ask our State Board members in D.C. to work with our State Superintendent and approve the final state plan in March, for April submission to the Department of Education. We know our work in DC won’t end with the approval of our ESSA plan — once approved, the hard work begins. There is no perfect policy or even perfect implementation of a policy — but our state plan is strong, and can be improved every year. Let’s not kick the can farther down the road. Every year we delay giving parents, educators, and policymakers crucial information about school performance is another year that we put adult interests ahead of kids.

Feb. 6, 2017 letter to Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi, available at: https://edreformnow.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Business-Civil-Rights-Coalition-Letter-on-H.J.-Res-57_ to-send.pdf

2Mathematica Policy Research, “Calibrating Performance Standards Across State Lines: How PARCC Predicts College Readiness,” October 2015.

3“Research shows that “item teaching” (i.e., test preparation) does not always follow from strong accountability, and when it does, it does not work either to improve student learning or to raise test scores.” ESEA Backgrounder: Accountability Systems, pg. 7.
http://dfer.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/DFER.EEP_.Accountability.ESEA_.March_.2010.pdf; and “ACT Test Prep: More is Not Better” (2008). https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Test%20Prep%20Handout%20for%20Teache rs.pdf