If you were wondering if Atlanta was alone in its testing irregularities, take a look at these USA Today stories questioning the test gains posted in Washington, D.C., under former chancellor and much celebrated reformer Michelle Rhee.
Using the same methodology that the AJC used to dissect Atlanta test score gains, USA Today found similar instances of outlier schools where students posted improbable, if not impossible, swings in scores, in six states and Washington. (These cheating stories make this parent petition in opposition of test scores in teacher evaluations all the more relevant.)
Today’s USA Today story says: (If you have time, link to the story and read it as it is a great piece.)
From the start, Rhee emphasized a need to raise scores, restore calm to chaotic schools and close those with lagging scores and small enrollments. She paid bonuses to principals and teachers who produced big gains on scores. She let go dozens of principals and fired at least 600 teachers. Others retired or quit.
The pressure on principals was unrelenting, says Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal who is now president of the Council of School Officers, representing principals and other administrators. Every year, Jefferson says, Rhee met with each principal and asked what kind of test score gains he would post in the coming school year. Jefferson says principals told her that Rhee expected them to increase scores by 10 percentile points or more every year. “What do you do when your chancellor asks, ‘How many points can you guarantee this year?’ ” Jefferson says. “How is a principal supposed to do that?”
Rhee churned through principals. TheWashington Post reported that Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some left on their own, either resigning or retiring; other principals, on one-year contracts, were let go for not producing quickly enough.
Union officials say the pressure for high test scores may have tempted educators to cheat. “This is like an education Ponzi scam,” says Nathan Saunders, head of the Washington Teachers’ Union. “If your test scores improve, you make more money. If not, you get fired. That’s incredibly dangerous.”
When D.C. administrators resisted investigating the 2008 scores, there was no counterweight to force the issue. The state board is empowered only to advise OSSE. Mary Lord, a board member with a teenager who attends a D.C. high school, is critical of the decision not to investigate the 2008 scores. “If you are going to add all this weight” to testing, “hanging the principals’ reputations … and the teachers’ pay on it, you have to make sure it is totally accurate,” Lord says.
Board members say that, like parents, they have been kept in the dark about testing irregularities. The state board wasn’t aware, Lord says, of the dispute between the superintendent’s office and Rhee until its members saw reports in TheWashington Post in the fall of 2009. She says she did not see the erasure analysis or the lists of schools flagged by McGraw-Hill until USA TODAY shared its copies.
After Rhee gave bonuses to educators in some schools that posted big gains in test scores in 2007 and 2008, there was little incentive to examine those scores, Lord says. “You’ve handed out these big bonuses. What are you going to do? Take them back?” she says. “It’s a bombshell. It’s embarrassing.”
In an earlier story this month on cheating, USA Today looked at Ohio’s Charles Seipelt Elementary School, where it was discovered that a veteran teacher had looked at test questions, copied them and then used them in the study guide he handed out to his classes.
Seipelt’s gains and losses are typical of a pattern uncovered by a USA TODAY investigation of the standardized tests of millions of students in six states and the District of Columbia. The newspaper identified 1,610 examples of anomalies in which public school classes — a school’s entire fifth grade, for example — boasted what analysts regard as statistically rare, perhaps suspect, gains on state tests.
Such anomalies surfaced in Washington, D.C., and each of the states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio — where USA TODAY analyzed test scores. For each state, the newspaper obtained three to seven years’ worth of scores. There were another 317 examples of equally large, year-to-year declines in an entire grade’s scores.
USA TODAY used a methodology widely recognized by mathematicians, psychometricians and testing companies. It compared year-to-year changes in test scores and singled out grades within schools for which gains were 3 standard deviations or more from the average statewide gain on that test. In layman’s language, that means the students in that grade showed greater improvement than 99.9% of their classmates statewide.
The higher the standard deviation, the rarer that improvement is. In dozens of cases, USA TODAY found 5, 6 and even 7 standard deviations, making those gains even more exceptional.
Large year-to-year jumps in test scores by an entire grade should raise red flags, especially if scores drop in later grades, says Brian Jacob, director of the Center on Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan. Such fluctuations by themselves do not prove there was cheating, but Jacob says they offer “a reasonable way to identify suspicious things” that should be investigated.
In the past decade, similar score spikes uncovered by The Dallas Morning News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, using the same methods as USA TODAY, led state officials in Texas and Georgia to conduct major probes of hundreds of schools. Most recently, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall announced she will step down in June, following inquires by federal and state investigators of alleged cheating at 58 Atlanta schools.
The question we have to ask after the AJC series on alleged cheating in APS and now the USA Today investigation is whether cheating has become a widespread and common response to unrealistic and unrelenting pressure to improve student performance. This has to be addressed before we fold test scores in teacher evaluations.
It’s time for a candid discussion about testing and expectations in our schools.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog