Is DC about to blow its chance to encourage a broader school curriculum?

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 D.C. has a chance to reverse some of that unintended damage. And it’s about to blow that chance.

Pencil And Test

The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), has given states (and D.C.) 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, the only measure of quality was the percentage of a school’s students who scored at the proficient level on state tests.

That test-focused approach served to highlight the vast difference in scores between more affluent students–who, in D.C., are almost all white–and poor and minority students. But it also anointed schools as “high-performing” if they just happened to have students who came in equipped to score well on tests. And it did nothing to reward schools that succeeded in bringing the lowest-performing students up to a middling level, often no easy feat. NCLB 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 plans for holding schools accountable and gives them flexibility to add measures other than reading and math scores. And yet the D.C. agency charged with coming up with a new school accountability plan–the 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.

For high schools—which are required by ESSA to test students only once during their high school careers—only 50% of the rating would rest on test scores. But at least the elementary and middle school ratings give schools some credit for bringing up the scores of low performers: 40% of their rating is based on the percent of students scoring proficient, and the other 40% is based on growth in student scores. The high school rating is based only on proficiency.

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.

Does it matter what country Columbus discovered?

This may sound like a wonky, abstruse debate. But it has huge real-world consequences. A case in point: One D.C. elementary school teacher I’ve spoken with, who I’ll call Ms. Smith, is responsible for teaching both English Language Arts (or literacy) and social studies–a common arrangement in elementary schools. Another teacher at her school, which serves a diverse population, is responsible for teaching both math and science. But, Ms. Smith told me, the math-and-science teacher often uses the time set aside for science to remediate students’ math skills. And while she herself would like to focus on social studies, she feels pressure to focus on her students’ literacy skills—because that’s what gets tested.

“There are no consequences attached to understanding or misunderstanding the content,” Ms. Smith said. “The test isn’t going to be a quiz about where the Navajo people resided, or is this a sedimentary rock, or whatever. On the [test], none of the passages had anything to do with what we studied.”

So Ms. Smith focuses on the reading comprehension skills she thinks will be tested: finding the main idea of a text, connecting a claim to evidence in the text, making inferences based on a text. But what Ms. Smith and many others don’t take into account is that students won’t be able to demonstrate those skills on a reading test if they can’t understand the texts they’re given. And they’ll only understand those texts if they’ve acquired knowledge about the world and the vocabulary that goes with it.

How can they acquire that knowledge and vocabulary, especially if they’re coming from homes where such things in short supply? By studying social studies, science, and art in school—exactly the subjects that schools are ignoring because it appears they’re not being tested.

Some top DCPS officials sighed when I told them about Ms. Smith. They say they’ve tried repeatedly to get the message across to teachers that spending time on reading comprehension “skills” won’t boost test scores. But as long as teachers and school administrators think kids 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.

Ms. Smith is 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 D.C. 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.

Ms. Smith was dismayed when, after a unit on Columbus during which she had focused on skills more than content, one of her fourth-graders volunteered the information that the country Columbus had discovered was China.

Getting out the message that content counts

Ideally, we would have a system in this country that did 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 have never heard of Columbus outside of school, it would also make school a whole lot more interesting and 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.

But that kind of system is not in the cards at the moment. So what can OSSE do to help make the system fairer and make school more engaging—not to mention more effective at raising those all-important test scores? 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, which would also require “civic readiness” activities and using the “city as a classroom,” 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%. In most cases, that would still leave 70% of a 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 and advocates reducing the test-score percentage to between 60 and 65%.

These are modest proposals, but either could 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 D.C. 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 or fill out a survey by following this link.


  1. says

    Natalie Weller makes a lot of sense. Students should learn substantive subjects and information, not just process and the basic tools (how to read, basic mathematics) needed to learn and understand substantive subjects. Social studies, civics, literature, science, art (graphic, sculptural, drama, music and dance) are extremely important. In an era of “fake news,” without learning substance and real facts about the world, students will not have the knowledge needed to determine if the news they read or hear is truly factually based or just false and misleading. The arts are the part of the curriculum that appeal to one’s soul. Often, they are what makes a child hungry to learn and explore more and understand the human condition. Exposing a child to substance invites learning and stretches a child’s world. Children also are inspired to read more and write more expressively and persuasively. Please truly educate our children, not just make them test taking robots. The latter will definitely kill the creativity and spark that inspires and makes them productive members of society.

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