Part Two: Cheating in DCPS

DC Education Reform Ten Years After, 

Part 2: Test Cheats

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). For temporal context, I arrived after the first of the infamous test cheating scandals and left just before the incident that spawned a second. Indeed, I filled a new position created to both manage test security and design an expanded testing program. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray, who opposed an expanded testing program, defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary. My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. 

The recurring test cheating scandals of the Rhee-Henderson years may seem extraordinary but, in fairness, DCPS was more likely than the average US school district to be caught because it received a much higher degree of scrutiny. Given how tests are typically administered in this country, the incidence of cheating is likely far greater than news accounts suggest, for several reasons: 

·      in most cases, those who administer tests—schoolteachers and administrators—have an interest in their results;

·      test security protocols are numerous and complicated yet, nonetheless, the responsibility of non-expert ordinary school personnel, guaranteeing their inconsistent application across schools and over time; 

·      after-the-fact statistical analyses are not legal proof—the odds of a certain amount of wrong-to-right erasures in a single classroom on a paper-and-pencil test being coincidental may be a thousand to one, but one-in-a-thousand is still legally plausible; and

·      after-the-fact investigations based on interviews are time-consuming, scattershot, and uneven. 

Still, there were measures that the Rhee-Henderson administrations could have adopted to substantially reduce the incidence of cheating, but they chose none that might have been effective. Rather, they dug in their heels, insisted that only a few schools had issues, which they thoroughly resolved, and repeatedly denied any systematic problem.  

Cheating scandals

From 2007 to 2009 rumors percolated of an extraordinary level of wrong-to-right erasures on the test answer sheets at many DCPS schools. “Erasure analysis” is one among several “red flag” indicators that testing contractors calculate to monitor cheating. The testing companies take no responsibility for investigating suspected test cheating, however; that is the customer’s, the local or state education agency. 

In her autobiographical account of her time as DCPS Chancellor, Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee), wrote (p. 197)

“For the first time in the history of DCPS, we brought in an outside expert to examine and audit our system. Caveon Test Security – the leading expert in the field at the time – assessed our tests, results, and security measures. Their investigators interviewed teachers, principals, and administrators.

“Caveon found no evidence of systematic cheating. None.”

Caveon, however, had not looked for “systematic” cheating. All they did was interview a few people at several schools where the statistical anomalies were more extraordinary than at others. As none of those individuals would admit to knowingly cheating, Caveon branded all their excuses as “plausible” explanations. That’s it; that is all that Caveon did. But, Caveon’s statement that they found no evidence of “widespread” cheating—despite not having looked for it—would be frequently invoked by DCPS leaders over the next several years.[1]

Incidentally, prior to the revelation of its infamous decades-long, systematic test cheating, the Atlanta Public Schools had similarly retained Caveon Test Security and was, likewise, granted a clean bill of health. Only later did the Georgia state attorney general swoop in and reveal the truth. 

In its defense, Caveon would note that several cheating prevention measures it had recommended to DCPS were never adopted.[2] None of the cheating prevention measures that I recommended were adopted, either.

The single most effective means for reducing in-classroom cheating would have been to rotate teachers on test days so that no teacher administered a test to his or her own students. It would not have been that difficult to randomly assign teachers to different classrooms on test days.

The single most effective means for reducing school administratorcheating would have been to rotate test administrators on test days so that none managed the test materials for their own schools. The visiting test administrators would have been responsible for keeping test materials away from the school until test day, distributing sealed test booklets to the rotated teachers on test day, and for collecting re-sealed test booklets at the end of testing and immediately removing them from the school. 

Instead of implementing these, or a number of other feasible and effective test security measures, DCPS leaders increased the number of test proctors, assigning each of a few dozen or so central office staff a school to monitor. Those proctors could not reasonably manage the volume of oversight required. A single DC test administration could encompass a hundred schools and a thousand classrooms.

Investigations

So, what effort, if any, did DCPS make to counter test cheating? They hired me, but then rejected all my suggestions for increasing security. Also, they established a telephone tip line. Anyone who suspected cheating could report it, even anonymously, and, allegedly, their tip would be investigated. 

Some forms of cheating are best investigated through interviews. Probably the most frequent forms of cheating at DCPS—teachers helping students during test administrations and school administrators looking at test forms prior to administration—leave no statistical residue. Eyewitness testimony is the only type of legal evidence available in such cases, but it is not just inconsistent, it may be socially destructive. 

I remember two investigations best: one occurred in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood with well-educated parents active in school affairs; the other in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Superficially, the cases were similar—an individual teacher was accused of helping his or her own students with answers during test administrations. Making a case against either elementary school teacher required sworn testimony from eyewitnesses, that is, students—eight-to-ten-year olds. 

My investigations, then, consisted of calling children into the principal’s office one-by-one to be questioned about their teacher’s behavior. We couldn’t hide the reason we were asking the questions. And, even though each student agreed not to tell others what had occurred in their visit to the principal’s office, we knew we had only one shot at an uncorrupted jury pool. 

Though the accusations against the two teachers were similar and the cases against them equally strong, the outcomes could not have been more different. In the high-poverty neighborhood, the students seemed suspicious and said little; none would implicate the teacher, whom they all seemed to like. 

In the more prosperous neighborhood, students were more outgoing, freely divulging what they had witnessed. The students had discussed the alleged coaching with their parents who, in turn, urged them to tell investigators what they knew. During his turn in the principal’s office, the accused teacher denied any wrongdoing. I wrote up each interview, then requested that each student read and sign. 

Thankfully, that accused teacher made a deal and left the school system a few weeks later. Had he not, we would have required the presence in court of the eight-to-ten-year olds to testify under oath against their former teacher, who taught multi-grade classes. Had that prosecution not succeeded, the eyewitness students could have been routinely assigned to his classroom the following school year.

My conclusion? Only in certain schools is the successful prosecution of a cheating teacher through eyewitness testimony even possible. But, even where possible, it consumes inordinate amounts of time and, otherwise, comes at a high price, turning young innocents against authority figures they naturally trusted. 

Cheating blueprints

Arguably the most widespread and persistent testing malfeasance in DCPS received little attention from the press. Moreover, it was directly propagated by District leaders, who published test blueprints on the web. Put simply, test “blueprints” are lists of the curricular standards (e.g., “student shall correctly add two-digit numbers”) and the number of test items included in an upcoming test related to each standard. DC had been advance publishing its blueprints for years.

I argued that the way DC did it was unethical. The head of the Division of Data & Accountability, Erin McGoldrick, however, defended the practice, claimed it was common, and cited its existence in the state of California as precedent. The next time she and I met for a conference call with one of DCPS’s test providers, Discover Education, I asked their sales agent how many of their hundreds of other customers advance-published blueprints. His answer: none.

In the state of California, the location of McGoldrick’s only prior professional experience, blueprints were, indeed, published in advance of test administrations. But their tests were longer than DC’s and all standards were tested. Publication of California’s blueprints served more to remind the populace what the standards were in advance of each test administration. Occasionally, a standard considered to be of unusual importance might be assigned a greater number of test items than the average, and the California blueprints signaled that emphasis. 

In Washington, DC, the tests used in judging teacher performance were shorter, covering only some of each year’s standards. So, DC’s blueprints showed everyone well in advance of the test dates exactly which standards would be tested and which would not. For each teacher, this posed an ethical dilemma: should they “narrow the curriculum” by teaching only that content they knew would be tested? Or, should they do the right thing and teach all the standards, as they were legally and ethically bound to, even though it meant spending less time on the to-be-tested content? It’s quite a conundrum when one risks punishment for behaving ethically.

Monthly meetings convened to discuss issues with the districtwide testing program, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS)—administered to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. All public schools, both DCPS and charters, administered those tests. At one of these regular meetings, two representatives from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) announced plans to repair the broken blueprint process.[3]

The State Office employees argued thoughtfully and reasonably that it was professionally unethical to advance publish DC test blueprints. Moreover, they had surveyed other US jurisdictions in an effort to find others that followed DC’s practice and found none. I was the highest-ranking DCPS employee at the meeting and I expressed my support, congratulating them for doing the right thing. I assumed that their decision was final.

I mentioned the decision to McGoldrick, who expressed surprise and speculation that it might have not been made at the highest level in the organizational hierarchy. Wasting no time, she met with other DCPS senior managers and the proposed change was forthwith shelved. In that, and other ways, the DCPS tail wagged the OSSE dog. 

* * *

It may be too easy to finger ethical deficits for the recalcitrant attitude toward test security of the Rhee-Henderson era ed reformers. The columnist Peter Greene insists that knowledge deficits among self-appointed education reformers also matter: 

“… the reformistan bubble … has been built from Day One without any actual educators inside it. Instead, the bubble is populated by rich people, people who want rich people’s money, people who think they have great ideas about education, and even people who sincerely want to make education better. The bubble does not include people who can turn to an Arne Duncan or a Betsy DeVos or a Bill Gates and say, ‘Based on my years of experience in a classroom, I’d have to say that idea is ridiculous bullshit.’”

“There are a tiny handful of people within the bubble who will occasionally act as bullshit detectors, but they are not enough. The ed reform movement has gathered power and money and set up a parallel education system even as it has managed to capture leadership roles within public education, but the ed reform movement still lacks what it has always lacked–actual teachers and experienced educators who know what the hell they’re talking about.”

In my twenties, I worked for several years in the research department of a state education agency. My primary political lesson from that experience, consistently reinforced subsequently, is that most education bureaucrats tell the public that the system they manage works just fine, no matter what the reality. They can get away with this because they control most of the evidence and can suppress it or spin it to their advantage.

In this proclivity, the DCPS central office leaders of the Rhee-Henderson era proved themselves to be no different than the traditional public-school educators they so casually demonized. 

US school systems are structured to be opaque and, it seems, both educators and testing contractors like it that way. For their part, and contrary to their rhetoric, Rhee, Henderson, and McGoldrick passed on many opportunities to make their system more transparent and accountable.

Education policy will not improve until control of the evidence is ceded to genuinely independent third parties, hired neither by the public education establishment nor by the education reform club.

The author gratefully acknowledges the fact-checking assistance of Erich Martel and Mary Levy.

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Citation:  Phelps, R. P. (2020, September). Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, Part 2: Test Cheats. Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Testimonials/v16n3.htm


[1] A perusal of Caveon’s website clarifies that their mission is to help their clients–state and local education departments–not get caught. Sometimes this means not cheating in the first place; other times it might mean something else. One might argue that, ironically, Caveon could be helping its clients to cheat in more sophisticated ways and cover their tracks better.

[2] Among them: test booklets should be sealed until the students open them and resealed by the students immediately after; and students should be assigned seats on test day and a seating chart submitted to test coordinators (necessary for verifying cluster patterns in student responses that would suggest answer copying).

[3] Yes, for those new to the area, the District of Columbia has an Office of the “State” Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Its domain of relationships includes not just the regular public schools (i.e., DCPS), but also other public schools (i.e., charters) and private schools. Practically, it primarily serves as a conduit for funneling money from a menagerie of federal education-related grant and aid programs

What did Education Reform in DC Actually Mean?

Short answer: nothing that would actually help students or teachers. But it’s made for well-padded resumes for a handful of insiders.

This is an important review, by the then-director of assessment. His criticisms echo the points that I have been making along with Mary Levy, Erich Martel, Adell Cothorne, and many others.

Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials

Access this testimonial in .pdf format

Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, 

Part 1: The Grand Tour

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary

My primary task was to design an expansion of that testing program that served the IMPACT teacher evaluation system to include all core subjects and all grade levels. Despite its fame (or infamy), the test score aspect of the IMPACT program affected only 13% of teachers, those teaching either reading or math in grades four through eight. Only those subjects and grade levels included the requisite pre- and post-tests required for teacher “value added” measurements (VAM). Not included were most subjects (e.g., science, social studies, art, music, physical education), grades kindergarten to two, and high school.

Chancellor Rhee wanted many more teachers included. So, I designed a system that would cover more than half the DCPS teacher force, from kindergarten through high school. You haven’t heard about it because it never happened. The newly elected Vincent Gray had promised during his mayoral campaign to reduce the amount of testing; the proposed expansion would have increased it fourfold.

VAM affected teachers’ jobs. A low value-added score could lead to termination; a high score, to promotion and a cash bonus. VAM as it was then structured was obviously, glaringly flawed,[1] as anyone with a strong background in educational testing could have seen. Unfortunately, among the many new central office hires from the elite of ed reform circles, none had such a background.

Before posting a request for proposals from commercial test developers for the testing expansion plan, I was instructed to survey two groups of stakeholders—central office managers and school-level teachers and administrators.

Not surprisingly, some of the central office managers consulted requested additions or changes to the proposed testing program where they thought it would benefit their domain of responsibility. The net effect on school-level personnel would have been to add to their administrative burden. Nonetheless, all requests from central office managers would be honored. 

The Grand Tour

At about the same time, over several weeks of the late Spring and early Summer of 2010, along with a bright summer intern, I visited a dozen DCPS schools. The alleged purpose was to collect feedback on the design of the expanded testing program. I enjoyed these meetings. They were informative, animated, and very well attended. School staff appreciated the apparent opportunity to contribute to policy decisions and tried to make the most of it.

Each school greeted us with a full complement of faculty and staff on their days off, numbering a several dozen educators at some venues. They believed what we had told them: that we were in the process of redesigning the DCPS assessment program and were genuinely interested in their suggestions for how best to do it. 

At no venue did we encounter stand-pat knee-jerk rejection of education reform efforts. Some educators were avowed advocates for the Rhee administration’s reform policies, but most were basically dedicated educators determined to do what was best for their community within the current context. 

The Grand Tour was insightful, too. I learned for the first time of certain aspects of DCPS’s assessment system that were essential to consider in its proper design, aspects of which the higher-ups in the DCPS Central Office either were not aware or did not consider relevant. 

The group of visited schools represented DCPS as a whole in appropriate proportions geographically, ethnically, and by education level (i.e., primary, middle, and high). Within those parameters, however, only schools with “friendly” administrations were chosen. That is, we only visited schools with principals and staff openly supportive of the Rhee-Henderson agenda. 

But even they desired changes to the testing program, whether or not it was expanded. Their suggestions covered both the annual districtwide DC-CAS (or “comprehensive” assessment system), on which the teacher evaluation system was based, and the DC-BAS (or “benchmarking” assessment system), a series of four annual “no-stakes” interim tests unique to DCPS, ostensibly offered to help prepare students and teachers for the consequential-for-some-school-staff DC-CAS.[2]

At each staff meeting I asked for a show of hands on several issues of interest that I thought were actionable. Some suggestions for program changes received close to unanimous support. Allow me to describe several.

1. Move DC-CAS test administration later in the school year. Many citizens may have logically assumed that the IMPACT teacher evaluation numbers were calculated from a standard pre-post test schedule, testing a teacher’s students at the beginning of their academic year together and then again at the end. In 2010, however, the DC-CAS was administered in March, three months before school year end. Moreover, that single administration of the test served as both pre- and post-test, posttest for the current school year and pretest for the following school year. Thus, before a teacher even met their new students in late August or early September, almost half of the year for which teachers were judged had already transpired—the three months in the Spring spent with the previous year’s teacher and almost three months of summer vacation. 

School staff recommended pushing DC-CAS administration to later in the school year. Furthermore, they advocated a genuine pre-post-test administration schedule—pre-test the students in late August–early September and post-test them in late-May–early June—to cover a teacher’s actual span of time with the students.

This suggestion was rejected because the test development firm with the DC-CAS contract required three months to score some portions of the test in time for the IMPACT teacher ratings scheduled for early July delivery, before the start of the new school year. Some small number of teachers would be terminated based on their IMPACT scores, so management demanded those scores be available before preparations for the new school year began.[3] The tail wagged the dog.

2. Add some stakes to the DC-CAS in the upper grades. Because DC-CAS test scores portended consequences for teachers but none for students, some students expended little effort on the test. Indeed, extensive research on “no-stakes” (for students) tests reveal that motivation and effort vary by a range of factors including gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, the weather, and age. Generally, the older the student, the lower the test-taking effort. This disadvantaged some teachers in the IMPACT ratings for circumstances beyond their control: unlucky student demographics. 

Central office management rejected this suggestion to add even modest stakes to the upper grades’ DC-CAS; no reason given. 

3. Move one of the DC-BAS tests to year end. If management rejected the suggestion to move DC-CAS test administration to the end of the school year, school staff suggested scheduling one of the no-stakes DC-BAS benchmarking tests for late May–early June. As it was, the schedule squeezed all four benchmarking test administrations between early September and mid-February. Moving just one of them to the end of the year would give the following year’s teachers a more recent reading (by more than three months) of their new students’ academic levels and needs.

Central Office management rejected this suggestion probably because the real purpose of the DC-BAS was not to help teachers understand their students’ academic levels and needs, as the following will explain.

4. Change DC-BAS tests so they cover recently taught content. Many DC citizens probably assumed that, like most tests, the DC-BAS interim tests covered recently taught content, such as that covered since the previous test administration. Not so in 2010. The first annual DC-BAS was administered in early September, just after the year’s courses commenced. Moreover, it covered the same content domain—that for the entirety of the school year—as each of the next three DC-BAS tests. 

School staff proposed changing the full-year “comprehensive” content coverage of each DC-BAS test to partial-year “cumulative” coverage, so students would only be tested on what they had been taught prior to each test administration.

This suggestion, too, was rejected. Testing the same full-year comprehensive content domain produced a predictable, flattering score rise. With each DC-BAS test administration, students recognized more of the content, because they had just been exposed to more of it, so average scores predictably rose. With test scores always rising, it looked like student achievement improved steadily each year. Achieving this contrived score increase required testing students on some material to which they had not yet been exposed, both a violation of professional testing standards and a poor method for instilling student confidence. (Of course, it was also less expensive to administer essentially the same test four times a year than to develop four genuinely different tests.)

5. Synchronize the sequencing of curricular content across the District. DCPS management rhetoric circa 2010 attributed classroom-level benefits to the testing program. Teachers would know more about their students’ levels and needs and could also learn from each other. Yet, the only student test results teachers received at the beginning of each school year was half-a-year old, and most of the information they received over the course of four DC-BAS test administrations was based on not-yet-taught content.

As for cross-district teacher cooperation, unfortunately there was no cross-District coordination of common curricular sequences. Each teacher paced their subject matter however they wished and varied topical emphases according to their own personal preference.

It took DCPS’s Chief Academic Officer, Carey Wright, and her chief of staff, Dan Gordon, less than a minute to reject the suggestion to standardize topical sequencing across schools so that teachers could consult with one another in real time. Tallying up the votes: several hundred school-level District educators favored the proposal, two of Rhee’s trusted lieutenants opposed it. It lost.

6. Offer and require a keyboarding course in the early grades. DCPS was planning to convert all its testing from paper-and-pencil mode to computer delivery within a few years. Yet, keyboarding courses were rare in the early grades. Obviously, without systemwide keyboarding training in computer use some students would be at a disadvantage in computer testing.

Suggestion rejected.

In all, I had polled over 500 DCPS school staff. Not only were all of their suggestions reasonable, some were essential in order to comply with professional assessment standards and ethics. 

Nonetheless, back at DCPS’ Central Office, each suggestion was rejected without, to my observation, any serious consideration. The rejecters included Chancellor Rhee, the head of the office of Data and Accountability—the self-titled “Data Lady,” Erin McGoldrick—and the head of the curriculum and instruction division, Carey Wright, and her chief deputy, Dan Gordon. 

Four central office staff outvoted several-hundred school staff (and my recommendations as assessment director). In each case, the changes recommended would have meant some additional work on their parts, but in return for substantial improvements in the testing program. Their rhetoric was all about helping teachers and students; but the facts were that the testing program wasn’t structured to help them.

What was the purpose of my several weeks of school visits and staff polling? To solicit “buy in” from school level staff, not feedback.

Ultimately, the new testing program proposal would incorporate all the new features requested by senior Central Office staff, no matter how burdensome, and not a single feature requested by several hundred supportive school-level staff, no matter how helpful. Like many others, I had hoped that the education reform intention of the Rhee-Henderson years was genuine. DCPS could certainly have benefitted from some genuine reform. 

Alas, much of the activity labelled “reform” was just for show, and for padding resumes. Numerous central office managers would later work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Numerous others would work for entities supported by the Gates or aligned foundations, or in jurisdictions such as Louisiana, where ed reformers held political power. Most would be well paid. 

Their genuine accomplishments, or lack thereof, while at DCPS seemed to matter little. What mattered was the appearance of accomplishment and, above all, loyalty to the group. That loyalty required going along to get along: complicity in maintaining the façade of success while withholding any public criticism of or disagreement with other in-group members.

Unfortunately, in the United States what is commonly showcased as education reform is neither a civic enterprise nor a popular movement. Neither parents, the public, nor school-level educators have any direct influence. Rather, at the national level, US education reform is an elite, private club—a small group of tightly-connected politicos and academicsa mutual admiration society dedicated to the career advancement, political influence, and financial benefit of its members, supported by a gaggle of wealthy foundations (e.g., Gates, Walton, Broad, Wallace, Hewlett, Smith-Richardson). 

For over a decade, The Ed Reform Club exploited DC for its own benefit. Local elite formed the DC Public Education Fund (DCPEF) to sponsor education projects, such as IMPACT, which they deemed worthy. In the negotiations between the Washington Teachers’ Union and DCPS concluded in 2010, DCPEF arranged a 3 year grant of $64.5M from the Arnold, Broad, Robertson and Walton Foundations to fund a 5-year retroactive teacher pay raise in return for contract language allowing teacher excessing tied to IMPACT, which Rhee promised would lead to annual student test score increases by 2012. Projected goals were not metfoundation support continued nonetheless.

Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee) now chairs the board of a charter school chain in California and occasionally collects $30,000+ in speaker fees but, otherwise, seems to have deliberately withdrawn from the limelight. Despite contributing her own additional scandalsafter she assumed the DCPS Chancellorship, Kaya Henderson ascended to great fame and glory with a “distinguished professorship” at Georgetown; honorary degrees from Georgetown and Catholic Universities; gigs with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Broad Leadership Academy, and Teach for All; and board memberships with The Aspen Institute, The College Board, Robin Hood NYC, and Teach For America. Carey Wright is now state superintendent in Mississippi. Dan Gordon runs a 30-person consulting firm, Education Counsel that strategically partners with major players in US education policy. The manager of the IMPACT teacher evaluation program, Jason Kamras, now works as Superintendent of the Richmond, VA public schools. 

Arguably the person most directly responsible for the recurring assessment system fiascos of the Rhee-Henderson years, then Chief of Data and Accountability Erin McGoldrick, now specializes in “data innovation” as partner and chief operating officer at an education management consulting firm. Her firm, Kitamba, strategically partners with its own panoply of major players in US education policy. Its list of recent clients includes the DC Public Charter School Board and DCPS.

If the ambitious DC central office folk who gaudily declared themselves leading education reformers were not really, who were the genuine education reformers during the Rhee-Henderson decade of massive upheaval and per-student expenditures three times those in the state of Utah? They were the school principals and staff whose practical suggestions were ignored by central office glitterati. They were whistleblowers like history teacher Erich Martel who had documented DCPS’ student records’ manipulation and phony graduation rates years before the Washington Post’s celebrated investigation of Ballou High School, and was demoted and then “excessed” by Henderson. Or, school principal Adell Cothorne, who spilled the beans on test answer sheet “erasure parties” at Noyes Education Campus and lost her job under Rhee. 

Real reformers with “skin in the game” can’t play it safe.

The author appreciates the helpful comments of Mary Levy and Erich Martel in researching this article. 

Access this testimonial in .pdf format

How Finland Handles Education: By Doing About the Opposite of Everything Advocated by American Educational ‘Reformers’

Yet another article on the Finnish education miracle, this one in The Guardian. Definitely worth reading.

Bob Schaeffer’s Weekly Roundup of News on Testing Mania

This is entirely from Bob Schaeffer:

==============================================

With public schools closing for the summer, many states are reviewing their 2015-2016 testing experience (once again, not a pretty picture) and planning to implement assessment reforms in coming years.  You can help stop the U.S. Department of Education from promoting testing misuse and overuse by weighing in on proposed Every Student Succeeds Act regulations.

National  Act Now to Stop Federal Regulations That Reimpose Failed No Child Left Behind Test-and-Punish Policies

https://actionnetwork.org/letters/tell-congress-department-must-drop-proposed-accountability-regulations

Alaska
State Preps for Implementing New Federal Education Law
http://skagwaynews.com/school-preps-for-phasing-out-no-child-left-behind-policies/

Delaware
Teacher Evaluations Could Be Less Focused on Test scores
http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/education/2016/06/20/test-scores-evaluations/86134396/

Florida
Legal Fight Looms Over Third Grade Retention Based on Test Participation
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/palm-beach/fl-opt-out-retention-20160619-story.html
Florida Parents Pressure School Board on Test-Use Policies
http://www.bradenton.com/news/local/education/article84734742.html

Georgia
School Chief Addresses Testing Meltdown
http://getschooled.blog.myajc.com/2016/06/17/state-school-chief-on-milestones-meltdown-were-fixing-it/

Indiana
Panel Unclear on Vision for New Assessments
http://indianapublicmedia.org/stateimpact/2016/06/14/istep-panel-unclear-vision-assessment/

Kansas
State Testing Time Will Be Reduced
http://www.kake.com/story/32231184/state-test-time-to-be-reduced

Kentucky
Feds Respond to State’s Accountability Plan Concerns
http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/education/2016/06/16/us-ed-dept-responds-accountability-concerns/86010782/

Maryland
State Commission Passes Buck to Reduce Testing to Schools
http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/testing-commission-wraps-asking-local-school-systems-finish-work/2016/06/15
Maryland Students Say Too Much Testing
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/readersrespond/bs-ed-testing-letter-20160617-story.html

Massachusetts
Schools to Help Map Assessments of the Future
http://www.capenews.net/bourne/news/bourne-to-help-map-future-of-school-assessments/article_4048811d-eddc-5195-ad20-eec61eb86a60.html

Missouri Schools Are More Than Test Scores
http://ccheadliner.com/opinion/local-viewpoint-jtsd-is-more-than-its-test-scores/article_0c9d7b60-3305-11e6-a685-cf3e9a4ffb56.html

New York
Test Flexibility for Students with Learning Disabilities is Step in Right Direction
http://www.lohud.com/story/opinion/editorials/2016/06/15/regents-disabilities-graduation-rule-change-editorial/85885818/
New York Families Fight Back Against Opt-Out Punishments
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/06/16/how-some-students-who-refused-to-take-high-stakes-standardized-tests-are-being-punished/

Ohio
State Eases Some Test Score Cut Offs
http://www.mydaytondailynews.com/news/news/state-eases-some-test-score-levels/nrgQZ/

Oklahoma
Legislature Ends Exit Exam Graduation Requirement
http://www.tulsaworld.com/homepagelatest/what-last-minute-change-in-student-testing-law-means-for/article_f69102e3-97c2-52bc-b616-4fcab147a186.html

Tennessee
State Comptroller Finds Computer Testing Problems Widespread
http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2016/06/20/tennessee-comptroller-lists-online-test-issues-every-state/86137098/
Tennessee Testing Is “In a Transition Phase”
http://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/tn/2016/06/14/theme-of-junes-testing-task-force-meeting-were-in-a-transition-phase/

Texas
Scrapped STAAR Scores Add to Standardized Testing Frustration
http://www.breitbart.com/texas/2016/06/15/scrapped-staar-scores-add-frustration-standardized-testing-texas/
Texas Legislator Says State Should Not Pay for Flawed Tests
http://amarillo.com/news/local-news/2016-06-13
Texas Study Panel Not Yet Ready to Ditch State Standardized Exams
http://keranews.org/post/study-panel-not-ready-ditch-staar

Utah
State Residents Give Failing Grade to Common Core Standardized Testing
http://www.sltrib.com/news/4001870-155/tribune-poll-utahns-give-failing-grades

Wisconsin Test Changes Render Year-to-Year Comparisons Useless
http://www.wiscnews.com/baraboonewsrepublic/opinion/editorial/article_8b7bf9a8-5825-5791-a621-d02ed86c3b63.html

International
Nine Out of Ten British Teachers Say Test Prep Focus Hurts Students’ Mental Health
https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/nine-10-teachers-believe-sats-preparation-harms-childrens-mental

University Admission If High School GPA Is Best Predictor of College Outcomes, Why Do Schools Cling to ACT/SAT
http://getschooled.blog.myajc.com/2016/06/15/if-gpa-is-the-best-predictor-of-college-success-why-do-colleges-cling-to-act-and-sat/

Worth Reading
Opt-Out Movement Reflects Genuine Concerns of Parents
http://educationnext.org/opt-out-reflects-genuine-concerns-of-parents-forum-testing/
Worth Reading Study Finds More Testing, Less Play in Kindergarten
http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/06/21/481404169/more-testing-less-play-study-finds-higher-expectations-for-kindergartners
Worth Reading Test Scores Are Poor Predictors of Life Outcomes
https://janresseger.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/test-scores-poor-indicator-of-students-life-outcomes-and-school-quality-new-consensus/

Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director
FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing
office-   (239) 395-6773   fax-  (239) 395-6779
mobile- (239) 699-0468
web-  http://www.fairtest.org

Against Proposed DoE Regulations on ESSA

This is from Monty Neill:

===========

Dear Friends,

The U.S. Department of Education (DoE) has drafted regulations for
implementing the accountability provisions of the Every Student Succeeds
Act (ESSA). The DOE proposals would continue test-and-punish practices
imposed by the failed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The draft
over-emphasizes standardized exam scores, mandates punitive
interventions not required in law, and extends federal micro-management.
The draft regulations would also require states to punish schools in
which larger numbers of parents refuse to let their children be tested.
When DoE makes decisions that should have been set locally in
partnership with educators, parents, and students, it takes away local
voices that ESSA tried to restore.

You can help push back against these dangerous proposals in two ways:

First, tell DoE it must drop harmful proposed regulations. You can
simply cut and paste the Comment below into DoE’s website at
https://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=ED-2016-OESE-0032-0001
<https://www.regulations.gov/#%21submitComment;D=ED-2016-OESE-0032-0001>
or adapt it into your own words. (The text below is part of FairTest’s
submission.) You could emphasize that the draft regulations steal the
opportunity ESSA provides for states and districts to control
accountability and thereby silences the voice of educators, parents,
students and others.

Second, urge Congress to monitor the regulations. Many Members have
expressed concern that DoE is trying to rewrite the new law, not draft
appropriate regulations to implement it. Here’s a letter you can easily
send to your Senators and Representative asking them to tell leaders of
Congress’ education committees to block DoE’s proposals:
https://actionnetwork.org/letters/tell-congress-department-must-drop-proposed-accountability-regulations.

Together, we can stop DoE’s efforts to extend NLCB policies that the
American people and Congress have rejected.

FairTest

Note: DoE website has a character limit; if you add your own comments,
you likely will need to cut some of the text below:

*/You can cut and paste this text into the DoE website:/*

I support the Comments submitted by FairTest on June 15 (Comment #).
Here is a slightly edited version:

While the accountability provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act
(ESSA) are superior to those in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the
Department of Education’s (DoE) draft regulations intensify ESSA’s worst
aspects and will perpetuate many of NCLB’s most harmful practices. The
draft regulations over-emphasize testing, mandate punishments not
required in law, and continue federal micro-management. When DoE makes
decisions that should be set at the state and local level in partnership
with local educators, parents, and students, it takes away local voices
that ESSA restores. All this will make it harder for states, districts
and schools to recover from the educational damage caused by NLCB – the
very damage that led Congress to fundamentally overhaul NCLB’s
accountability structure and return authority to the states.

The DoE must remove or thoroughly revise five draft regulations:

_DoE draft regulation 200.15_ would require states to lower the ranking
of any school that does not test 95% of its students or to identify it
as needing “targeted support.” No such mandate exists in ESSA. This
provision violates statutory language that ESSA does not override “a
State or local law regarding the decision of a parent to not have the
parent’s child participate in the academic assessments.” This regulation
appears designed primarily to undermine resistance to the overuse and
misuse of standardized exams.

_Recommendation:_ DoE should simply restate ESSA language allowing the
right to opt out as well as its requirements that states test 95% of
students in identified grades and factor low participation rates into
their accountability systems. Alternatively, DoE could write no
regulation at all. In either case, states should decide how to implement
this provision.

_DoE draft regulation 200.18_ transforms ESSA’s requirement for
“meaningful differentiation” among schools into a mandate that states
create “at least three distinct levels of school performance” for each
indicator. ESSA requires states to identify their lowest performing five
percent of schools as well as those in which “subgroups” of students are
doing particularly poorly. Neither provision necessitates creation of
three or more levels. This proposal serves no educationally useful
purpose. Several states have indicated they oppose this provision
because it obscures rather than enhances their ability to precisely
identify problems and misleads the public. This draft regulation would
pressure schools to focus on tests to avoid being placed in a lower
level. Performance levels are also another way to attack schools in
which large numbers of parents opt out, as discussed above.

_DoE draft regulation 200.18_ also mandates that states combine multiple
indicators into a single “summative” score for each school. As Rep. John
Kline, chair of the House Education Committee, pointed out, ESSA
includes no such requirement. Summative scores are simplistically
reductive and opaque. They encourage the flawed school grading schemes
promoted by diehard NCLB defenders.

_Recommendation:_ DoE should drop this draft regulation. It should allow
states to decide how to use their indicators to identify schools and
whether to report a single score. Even better, the DoE should encourage
states to drop their use of levels.

_DoE draft regulation 200.18_ further proposes that a state’s academic
indicators together carry “much greater” weight than its “school
quality” (non-academic) indicators. Members of Congress differ as to the
intent of the relevant ESSA passage. Some say it simply means more than
50%, while others claim it implies much more than 50%. The phrase “much
greater” is likely to push states to minimize the weight of non-academic
factors in order to win plan approval from DOE, especially since the
overall tone of the draft regulations emphasizes testing.

_Recommendation: _The regulations should state that the academic
indicators must count for more than 50% of the weighting in how a state
identifies schools needing support.

_DoE draft regulation 200.18_ also exceeds limits ESSA placed on DoE
actions regarding state accountability plans.

_DoE draft regulation 200.19_ would require states to use 2016-17 data
to select schools for “support and improvement” in 2017-18. This leaves
states barely a year for implementation, too little time to overhaul
accountability systems. It will have the harmful consequence of
encouraging states to keep using a narrow set of test-based indicators
and to select only one additional “non-academic” indicator.

_Recommendation:_ The regulations should allow states to use 2017-18
data to identify schools for 2018-19. This change is entirely consistent
with ESSA’s language.

Lastly, we are concerned that an additional effect of these unwarranted
regulations will be to unhelpfully constrain states that choose to
participate in ESSA’s “innovative assessment” program.


Monty Neill, Ed.D.; Executive Director, FairTest; P.O. Box 300204,
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-477-9792; http://www.fairtest.org; Donate
to FairTest: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/fairtest

Remedial College Courses and Real Problems

From a recent discussion on the Concerned4DCPS list about a recent NYT article on the numbers of students taking remedial courses at the college level. I have taken the opportunity to revise and extend my remarks. If you want to read these in chronological order, start at the bottom.

===========================

(From me:)

Judge in NY State Throws Out ‘Value-Added Model’ Ratings

I am pleased that in an important, precedent-setting case, a judge in New York State has ruled that using Value-Added measurements to judge the effectiveness of teachers is ‘arbitrary’ and ‘capricious’.

The case involved teacher Sheri Lederman, and was argued by her husband.

“New York Supreme Court Judge Roger McDonough said in his decision that he could not rule beyond the individual case of fourth-grade teacher Sheri G. Lederman because regulations around the evaluation system have been changed, but he said she had proved that the controversial method that King developed and administered in New York had provided her with an unfair evaluation. It is thought to be the first time a judge has made such a decision in a teacher evaluation case.”

In case you were unaware of it, VAM is a statistical black box used to predict how a hypothetical student is supposed to score on a Big Standardized Test one year based on the scores of every other student that year and in previous years. Any deviation (up or down) of that score is attributed to the teacher.

Gary Rubinstein and I have looked into how stable those VAM scores are in New York City, where we had actual scores to work with (leaked by the NYTimes and other newspapers). We found that they were inconsistent and unstable in the extreme! When you graph one year’s score versus next year’s score, we found that there was essentially no correlation at all, meaning that a teacher who is assigned the exact same grade level, in the same school, with very similar  students, can score high one year, low the next, and middling the third, or any combination of those. Very, very few teachers got scores that were consistent from year to year. Even teachers who taught two or more grade levels of the same subject (say, 7th and 8th grade math) had no consistency from one subject to the next. See my blog  (not all on NY City) herehere, here,  here, herehere, here, here,  herehere, and here. See Gary R’s six part series on his blog here, here, here, here, here, and here. As well as a less technical explanation here.

Mercedes Schneider has done similar research on teachers’ VAM scores in Louisiana and came up with the same sorts of results that Rubinstein and I did.

Which led all three of us to conclude that the entire VAM machinery was invalid.

And which is why the case of Ms. Lederman is so important. Similar cases have been filed in numerous states, but this is apparently the first one where a judgement has been reached.

(Also read this. and this.)

Charter, Alternative, and On-Line Schools Have Lowest On-Time Graduation Rates, Study Finds

 

(This article is normally behind a paywall at Education Week.)

Charter, Alternative, Virtual Schools Account for Most Low-Grad-Rate Schools, Study Finds
By Catherine Gewertz on May 9, 2016 6:00 AM

Charter, virtual, and alternative schools account for a disproportionate share of U.S. high schools with low graduation rates, according to a study released Monday. Even though they enroll only a small slice of students, they account for more than half of the U.S. high schools that graduate 67 percent or less of their students in four years.

“Building a Grad Nation,” the seventh in an annual series of reports on U.S. graduation rates, concluded that regular district high schools make up 41 percent of those that didn’t surpass the 67-percent threshold in 2013-14. Charter, virtual, and alternative schools—a small sector, representing only 14 percent of the country’s high schools and 8 percent of its high school students—account for 52 percent of the schools that fell short of that mark. (The remaining 7 percent are vocational and special-education schools.)

The findings offer a challenge to a country that’s renewing its focus on graduation rates through the newly revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Known now as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the law requires states to report four-year graduation rates for schools that enroll 100 students or more, and districts to provide research-based help for schools that graduate fewer than 67 percent in four years.

With that new law in mind, the organizations that issue the “Grad Nation” reports annually—Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, the Alliance for Excellent Education and the America’s Promise Alliance—shifted their focus for this year’s report, from schools that enroll 300 or more students (about 13,400 schools) to those that enroll 100 or more (about 18,100 schools).

That change nearly tripled the scope of the study of schools with graduation rates of two-thirds or less: from 1,000 schools enrolling 924,000 students to 2,397 schools enrolling 1.23 million students. In a foreshadowing of the work that states face under ESSA, the Grad Nation researchers looked for patterns among the schools with low graduation rates. (Note: This paragraph reflects corrections made to the Grad Nation report.)

The contrast between “regular” district high schools, and alternative, virtual, and charter schools showed the starkest pattern. Here are the shares of U.S. high schools of each type, and their shares of schools with low graduation rates:

Regular high schools:

84 percent of U.S. high schools

7 percent have graduation rates of 67 percent or less

Alternative schools:

6 percent of U.S. high schools

57 percent have graduation rates of 67 percent or less

Charter schools:

8 percent of U.S. high schools

30 percent have graduation rates of 67 percent or less

Virtual schools:

1 percent of U.S. high schools

87 percent have graduation rates of 67 percent or less

The Grad Nation researchers called attention to the preponderance of low-grad-rate schools among charter, alternative, and virtual schools in part because the numbers of those schools have been rising in the last 15 years. Additionally, they enroll large shares of low-income, black, and Hispanic students.

“In many states, these various high school options have become popular pathways for students that have struggled to stay on track in traditional high schools,” the study says. “Therefore, it is critical that issues surrounding these schools be addressed.”

The report also pinpoints a bigger problem with low-graduation-rate schools in some states than in others. In Alaska, New Mexico, and Florida, 30 percent or more of the high schools have graduation rates of 67 percent or lower.

figure 10

Robert Balfanz, the-co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, told reporters in a conference call that state variability is a key force in the numbers of low-grad-rate schools. For instance, of all the low-grad-rate schools in Hawaii, 100 percent were charter schools. In Arizona, the number was 73 percent, and in Indiana, 60 percent. Half of the low-grad-rate schools in California were charters. Kentucky, Texas and Washington topped the list of states with particularly high shares of low-grad-rate schools that were alternative schools.

But in some states, the charter sector is “helping solve the dropout crisis” by running many schools with good graduation rates, Balfanz said. He pointed to New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Oklahoma as examples.

Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, welcomed the report’s inquiry into graduation rates at different types of schools. But she took issue with its methdology, saying the charter sector’s share of low-grad-rate schools looks worse than it is because researchers didn’t adequately separate alternative schools from mainstream charters. She also pointed out that the study found that more than 4 in 10 charter schools are graduating more than 85 percent of their students.

Many celebrated last December when the nation’s high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 82 percent for the class of 2014. But the milestone also sparked skepticism about whether states or districts were using shortcuts to boost their diploma numbers, by lowering academic expectations or changing they way they counted transfer students in each class cohort.

The Grad Nation researchers took on those questions, and concluded that there was little or no evidence that such practices were affecting state-level graduation rates. Further analysis would have to be done to make such conclusions at the district level, the report says. It did not examine schools’ increasing reliance on quick credit-recovery programs to improve graduation rates.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states much more autonomy than they had under the No Child Left Behind Act over the way they handle low-performing schools. With that in mind, the Grad Nation authors urged states to give graduation rates significant weight in the accountability systems, and to make sure that charter, virtual, and alternative schools, as well as traditional high schools, are monitored and provided solid help with low graduation rates.

They also urged states to report five- and six-year graduation rates, to capture a more accurate picture of diploma-earning. Many alternative schools, in particular, were created to serve students who struggled in traditional schools, and who might take longer to earn their diplomas, the report notes. Adding five-year graduation rates to the national picture would boost the rate by 3 percentage points, it says, and adding six-year rates would increase it by another point.

 

 

Where DC’s schools rank by family income, test scores, and ethnicity – NYTimes

The New York Times recently ran the results of some pretty fancy number-crunching for all sufficiently-large public school districts in the United States. They graphed family income against ‘years ahead or behind’ in school and also showed the discrepancies in each of those school districts among hispanics, whites, and blacks.

If you haven’t played with the graphs, I urge you to do so. I did a little bit, looking for Washington, DC, my home town, where I and my children attended and where I taught for 30 years. I already knew that DC has one of the largest black-white gaps anywhere in the nation – a gap that 9 years of Edu-Reform under Fenty, Rhee, Gray, Henderson various charter companies have not narrowed at all.

Notice the extremely tight correlation between family income and scores on achievement tests, and where the District of Columbia is situated on the graph.

disparities dcps nyt

This next plot shows where DC’s whites, hispanics, and blacks are situated on the graph (as well as for thousands of other school districts):

Disparities dcps wh blk his nyt

Notice that white students in DC’s public schools are nearly the wealthiest and highest-achieving group anywhere in the nation, while DC’s black students are very far behind in both income and achievement. DC’s hispanic students, to my surprise, are considered to be a bit above the middle of the income levels, but still rather far behind academically. (I actually rather doubt the data on those DC hispanic income levels, based on my own personal experiences with Hispanic families here in DC…)

Advanced Math Among American Students

An article in the Atlantic discusses the growing phenomenon of American students studying and succeeding in a wide variety of advanced mathematics courses and competitions. This includes organizations like MathCounts (which I coached at the JHS level for many years) as well as special summer math programs like MathPath, as well as math circles and AP calculus and statistics courses.

However, as the author notes:

National achievement data reflect this access gap in math instruction [between US poor kids and US rich kids – gfb]  all too clearly. The ratio of rich math whizzes to poor ones is 3 to 1 in South Korea and 3.7 to 1 in Canada, to take two representative developed countries. In the U.S., it is 8 to 1. And while the proportion of American students scoring at advanced levels in math is rising, those gains are almost entirely limited to the children of the highly educated, and largely exclude the children of the poor. By the end of high school, the percentage of low-income advanced-math learners rounds to zero.

Published in: on February 10, 2016 at 4:56 pm  Comments (2)  
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