Agency Performance Oversight Hearing, Fiscal Year 2013-2014, OSSE

Testimony of Bonnie O’Keefe, Senior Policy Analyst

DC Action for Children

Agency Performance Oversight Hearing

Fiscal Year 2013-2014

Office of the State Superintendent of Education

Before the Committee on Education

Council of the District of Columbia

February 24, 2014


Good afternoon, Councilmember Catania and members of the Committee on Education. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council as it reviews the Office of the State Superintendent for Education’s performance in the past year. My name is Bonnie O’Keefe, I am a senior policy analyst at DC Action for Children.

DC Action for Children (“DC Action”) provides data-based analysis and policy leadership on critical issues facing DC children and youth, to promote policies and actions that optimize child and family well-being.

DC Action is the home of DC KIDS COUNT, which tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being in the DC neighborhoods where children live, learn and grow. We work closely with city agencies, the school system and service providers to share the most accurate and timely data, along with clear and accessible analysis. Our advocacy agenda is based on these data.

As the State Education Agency for DC, OSSE is responsible for key aspects of the success of DC’s educational system, including managing federal education grants and performing District-wide educational data collection, analysis and reporting. My testimony today will focus on four areas in which OSSE plays a decisive role: updating child care quality standards, making Pre-K to12 educational performance data transparent, tracking the educational performance of low-income children and data collaboration. 

Updated QRIS for Child Care is Long Overdue

There are nearly 500 child care facilities in DC, with capacity to serve over 25,000 children. Parents need tools to evaluate these facilities and make the right choices for their child, and facilities need clear guidelines and goals that will ensure both child safety and high quality services. A Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) is meant to fulfill those needs, but DC’s QRIS is in limbo. “Going for the Gold,” DC’s QRIS for child care facilities that accept subsidies is long overdue for an update and overhaul. The QRIS was first implemented fourteen years ago, and since then the early education landscape in DC has changed dramatically, and updates have been promised several times without success. During performance oversight hearings last year, OSSE admitted that it had not met its stated goal of implementing a new QRIS in FY12, and promised that a new system would be launched in FY13. Now, we are well into FY14, and we find that full implementation of a new QRIS is not planned until FY15.

What the new QRIS contains is unknown to the public and to several child care providers to whom we’ve spoken. The QRIS ratings are also linked to subsidy funding, so that higher quality programs receive more funding through the child care subsidy formula, and programs have a monetary incentive to improve. These subsidy amounts have likewise not been updated in fourteen years. The aspirations set out by OSSE for improvements in their oversight responses seem generally sound, but it is difficult to judge without knowing the actual contents of the proposed QRIS. For this system to work, parents and providers need to have confidence in the quality standards, and persistent delays and lack of transparency have eroded that confidence. We would like to hear an explanation from OSSE for the years-long delay, any details on the new QRIS, and their plans to engage the communities of parents and providers to make implementation, when it comes, a success.

LearnDC Can Be Even Better

We applaud OSSE’s new online portal, LearnDC, which brings together information on child care, early childhood education, the common core, DCPS schools and charter schools. This sort of resource has been much needed in DC, and is a further sign of OSSE’s commitment to improving data transparency under the leadership of Director of Data Management Jeff Noel. We urge OSSE to approach LearnDC as a work-in-progress, and we hope to see it continue to grow and improve. Some suggested areas for growth include:

  • Incorporating child care “Going for the Gold” ratings in the child care search and child care provider profiles, along with explanations of each ranking.
  • Allow for data downloads of all information in school profiles in a centralized data center, similar to what charters schools have made available,[1] or what Maryland makes available on their school report card site.[2] This would allow advocates, community groups and educational service providers more flexibility in how they analyze and use this data, and hopefully remove a sizeable number of data request burdens from OSSE.
  • Increase public outreach on the site. We would be interested to know what areas of the site have been popular thus far, and what the web statistics for LearnDC are.
  • Explore ways to integrate LearnDC with My School DC and LEA sites. Because it seems one of the goals of LearnDC is to help parents make informed school choices, it would only make sense to integrate it with the school enrollment site. Having both these new platforms debut in the same year may have been confusing for parents, and we would not like to see the resources on either site go to waste.

OSSE Needs to Lead the Way on Tracking Performance for Students from Low-Income Families

Starting in 2013, DCPS stopped tracking individual students’ eligibility for free and reduced price meals (FARMs), and shifted to a school-wide eligibility model with the support of the US Department of Agriculture. This shift was a win for school health, because DCPS is likely serving meals to more eligible students, but it was a loss for DC’s ability to track the academic performance of students from low-income families. Previously, we relied upon FARMs eligibility as a proxy for family income, as FARMs eligibility is approximately equal to 200% of poverty. Now there is no reliable individual level data to help interpret the income achievement gap in DC-CAS and NAEP results. The new “at-risk” designation which passed the DC Council late last-year makes sense as a budgetary weight for schools supporting many children with greater need for academic intervention, but it covers a smaller subset of children (30% vs. 70% under FARMS). We are concerned that “at-risk” it is not the best proxy measure for assessing the achievement gap, and it is not comparable to other jurisdictions’ definition of low-income. We’d like to hear details from OSSE on how they will approach the issue of monitoring and closing the income achievement gap, and integrate new methods of tracking family income status into OSSE’s data system (SLED). We cannot go another year not knowing for sure how students from low-income families are doing in our schools.  


Improve Intra- and Inter-Agency Collaboration With Data

OSSE and other DC agencies have invested millions of dollars in state-of-the-art data systems, which allow us to assess the outcomes of DC government programs more effectively than ever before. To maximize the return on these investments, various data systems need to be able to “talk” to one another as much as possible, to reduce silos and increase shared knowledge. We would like to hear from OSSE leaders how they are integrating data systems within their agency, and with other DC agencies that work with children, including CFSA and the Department of Health Care Finance.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

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