The March 2021 Auditor’s Report: Or, How DC Fails To Provide All Students Their Educations

[Ed. Note: Over just a few years, DC’s auditor has produced many pages detailing shockingly poor practices in DC’s public schools, whether mis-use of at risk funds, inequitable modernizations, high school admissions bias, and segregation and funding inequities arising from school choice. The auditor’s latest report on DC’s publicly funded schools, released on March 10, takes it up a notch. Spelling out how our state superintendent of education (OSSE) spent tens of millions of dollars in both federal and DC taxpayer funds to create a database of educational data to better track student data, this latest report shows that database not only doesn’t exist as promised, but the failures of OSSE to collect actionable data, and to act on the data it already has, means DC students and their educations are literally being left behind. On March 19, the DC Council held a hearing about this report. Reality itself seemed to be on trial, as government witnesses from various DC education agencies disputed the report’s findings. The council invited public testimony, albeit written. Below is my contribution to the DC Council. Though that window for testimony has passed, these issues are not going away. More to the point: Our children depend on ALL DC elected officials being held accountable for the educationally harmful events documented herein and in the report.]

I am Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent, and this is my testimony about the March 2021 DC auditor’s report on the work of our state education agency, OSSE.

The auditor’s report is disturbing validation of years of testimony by DC education advocates, as well as of news reports, about the failure of DC to provide equitable education to all its children. This report outlines how OSSE’s poor stewardship of DC public education data, and that data’s widespread lack of reliability and validity, results in what amounts to a denial of education.

Take this figure from p. 35 of the report as an example:

Copyright DC Auditor 2021

The data points on the chart on the right not aligned with the diagonal line show DC students not consistently accounted for in a way that is actionable OR trackable by OSSE and most LEAs. Those students are thus highly likely to not be receiving the educations they are entitled to–with little hope of help, because there is no systematic and comprehensive tracking of them or their records across LEAs.

And the adults in charge of those LEAs and this data testified at the council hearing on March 19 that they were OK with this.

In fact, OSSE has spent millions in federal funds to perpetuate this lack of actionable data instead of using that money for its intended purpose—which includes ensuring that all attendance in DC’s publicly funded schools is tracked accurately and is actionable by every single LEA and education actor.

And yet, as bad as that is, absolutely none of this is new!

That is: Education leaders in DC have long known how DC education data lack reliability and validity, as the report outlines, and are abused regularly.

Here are just a few examples that I (a parent without access to privileged information that every single DC education leader who testified about this auditor’s report can access) personally know about, all presented in the last few years via publicly available council testimony and reports (commissioned and/or journalism):

–OSSE has for years combined PARCC scores of math tests of different levels of difficulty, pretending that exercise is statistically meaningful;

–OSSE does not promulgate a common definition for attendance (see the auditor’s report and figure above), so attendance stats for DC charters are meaningless as a measure for >40,000 DC charter students as well as the schools they attend;

–OSSE doesn’t fulsomely track student mobility, even though students who are highly mobile experience huge academic issues and the schools that receive them mid-year (often DCPS schools with high percentages of at risk students) do not get any resources to help them;

–As the auditor’s report notes, OSSE doesn’t track courses, grades, or credit toward graduation requirements in charters, so students cannot be helped well if they change schools and are off track to graduate;

–OSSE was unconcerned with reports about a graduation scandal in two charter schools, when employees showed evidence of grade and attendance fixing;

–OSSE refused to have an independent investigation of charter school graduation data when the Ballou scandal came out, despite the auditor’s evidence that charter graduation data is problematic, as graduating classes may differ significantly from entering classes;

–OSSE has not removed the STAR rating from any school description—even though it is based on flawed attendance records (see pages 35ff and 79ff of the auditor’s report);

–OSSE was unaware that legally required science and social studies classes were not being provided at several DCPS middle schools;

–OSSE was not vetting interim education providers in charters, leaving students in terrible situations;

–OSSE has not been enforcing the Healthy Schools Act, while presenting the nonenforcement as success;

–OSSE not only falsely accused dozens, if not hundreds, of Ellington families of residency fraud, but an OSSE lawyer tried to slow-walk the investigation for political purposes;

–OSSE appeared unconcerned by nonreporting of suspension rates by charters and used data to obfuscate suspensions;

–OSSE has no guidance for LEAs regarding credit recovery;

–OSSE interfered with the process by which an independent research practice partnership would be created for DC education data;

–OSSE failed to appropriately track residency fraud for years.

This is not to mention the auditor’s OTHER reports of DC education, including misuse of at risk funds and segregation arising from school choice, data for which appear to be actively ignored by DC education leaders despite OSSE being able to help.

For instance, OSSE could implement a finer assessment of who is at risk and a more granular understanding of demographics and achievement (per Robert White’s excellent question at the 3/19 hearing). And OSSE certainly could push for better use of at risk and other, targeted funds (along with tracking those funds) as well as supporting existing schools as much as the agency currently ensures greater mobility through promoting school ratings and the lottery even in the face of declining enrollments.

Yet after all these years—YEARS!–of reports, investigations, and testimony outlining continued dereliction of DC education data duty and its resulting harm to DC children, we have no substantive changes. No one at OSSE or the charter board has been fired over this as far as I know, and no one is promulgating rules to stop the democratically deviant data behaviors of these agencies or their leaders outlined in this current report.

Rather, we have expressions of shock and bewilderment, as if no one has ever heard any of this before! It’s the very definition of gaslighting: Millions of dollars spent annually on stuff that everyone in charge pretends never happened or, if it did, it was a long, long time ago in a place far, far away—hakuna matata!

But this is not a fairy tale or a movie plot. This is actually happening, right now, with our education data:

–students not tracked, including some of the most vulnerable in the city, like the kids from Washington Met, more than 40 of whom NO ONE in DC has any idea where they went after the school’s closure nor how they are doing;

–money not following students, including those kids kicked out of charters into DCPS schools with the highest percentages of students in poverty (which the charter board executive director noted during the 3/19 hearing she has no information about);

–bankrupt school ratings based on invalid data and demographics of a cartoonishly simplistic variety that result in school closures, increasing student mobility and enriching charters that gain the buildings and “marketshare”; and

–a state-level education agency governed by someone who also controls both school spending and decision making so that the data itself is inevitably politicized and abused.

As a DC taxpayer, I have to ask:

Is there anything that will cause OSSE, the charter board, the mayor, and/or the DC Council to actually protect DC children from all of those things detailed above—to ensure that all student records and recordkeeping are accurate, consistent, and shared across agencies and LEAs fulsomely so KIDS are not lost; that our school ratings are not based on manipulated and incomplete data that prevent accurate assessments of student growth while pushing wrongful closures; that the education services our students are entitled to are provided at every turn; and that those services are legally adequate, safe, and equitable?

At the hearing, the auditor’s office made clear that we already have the tools to do all that–and more.

But as far as I can see, it’s not happening with anyone at OSSE, the charter board, or the mayor! Instead, testimony at the hearing on this report on behalf of those agencies and the mayor was first and foremost about validating the status quo and the freedom, privacy, and security of

Charter schools and/or

The adults in charge of our schools and/or

The DC education leaders over all of them, up to and including the mayor

Bottom line: All these folks are OK with every single bad thing in the auditor’s report—and more.

If that seems harsh, it’s not nearly as harsh as what the DC public lives with as a consequence. To wit:

How can DC ed leaders NOT know where all Wash Met students are?
How can DC ed leaders NOT know what courses all our students have taken?
How can DC ed leaders NOT know that some schools are not providing legally required courses?
How can DC ed leaders NOT know what interim education providers are doing?
How can DC ed leaders NOT know what students have attended school–and when and why?
How can DC ed leaders NOT know where students are and account for it accurately and reliably everywhere?

Do not think for a minute that this auditor’s report is simply about data, a database, a data “journey,” or whatever quaintly beneficent term was floated during that hearing by the agencies defending the status quo.

This report is a clear outline of how DC is FAILING to provide all its children their educations.

So:

What are YOU going to do about it?

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