A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 29 2011

Tests, Cheating, and Healthy Skepticism

DCPS made the front page of USA Today today. Unfortunately, it was for the worst of reasons. The headline reads:

When test scores soared in D.C., were the gains real?

What follows is an in-depth report that highlights the controversy brewing around one Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, a K-8 DCPS school. At over 4,300 words, the piece is monstrous (but worth every word); heck!, USA Today mobilized the investigative skills of a baker’s dozen journalists.

In a nutshell, the school saw such a sharp increase in test scores over the past few years that it earned a “blue ribbon” from Secretary Duncan. Now, it turns out, most of the classrooms at the school had abnormally high wrong-to-right erasure rates on student answer sheets. Let the crisis begin.

Much has already been said about the issue (indeed, how can this have not gotten pundits on both sides of the testing aisle chiming in?). Andy Rotherham’s reaction is short and sweet. He points the reader to Jay Mathews’.

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I do have a few reax of my own (Read it for yourself here and develop your own opinions.):

(1) I believe in the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This is basic. Let’s hold to this and not prejudge.

(2) Yet, holding this belief should not and does not preclude a dose of “healthy skepticism.” As Jay Mathews–and the reporting of the talented USA Today journalists–makes clear, we have an obligation to at least execute a thorough investigation of the issue (classroom connection: today’s SAT Word of the Day was “scrutinize”–something I will definitely bring up with my students tomorrow). I’m glad it’s happening. Given the abnormally high wrong-to-right erasure rate, I see a “preponderance of evidence” supporting the idea that fishy behavior took place. I’d definitely investigate.

(Ancillary note: here’s an example about how (1) and (2) are not contradictory. As a former bike racer, I have huge respect for Lance Armstrong and all that he has accomplished. Heck, the Lance Armstrong Foundation is one of the few charities that I donate to each year. Unfortunately, Armstrong has been the target of a wave of recent doping allegations.  In fact, the FDA is investigating him as we speak. Despite my reverence for him, I believe it is right that we investigate these claims. His achievements were so extraordinary–so unbelievable–that they deserve healthy skepticism. In other words, precisely because he has accomplished so much does he deserve extra scrutiny. That being said, I am not praying for the verdict to be guilty. Armstrong is, in many ways, my hero. But if the investigation does conclude that Armstrong doped–well, at that point he may no longer stand on a pedestal for me.)

(3) It does not surprise me how “in the dark” so many members of the community were and are. It’s pretty clear that all clued-in parties tried to stay as quiet as possible about the ongoing investigation. Rightly so. In our judicial system, grand jury secrecy exists in large part to ensure that “derogatory information” that is leaked does not unfairly taint the reputation of someone under investigation before s/he is indicted. We would not want Noyes to be the subject, unfairly, of intense public gut reactions.

I do happen to know someone who teaches at Noyes. This person had received word that the school was under investigation, but knew little beyond that. Indeed, according to this person, the admin had “kept it all pretty quiet.” Granted, this person does not teach a tested grade, so the lack of knowledge on this person’s part might be slightly more understandable. Nevertheless, you would hope that at least the teachers in the building would be filled in on an investigation as momentous as the one currently underway…

(4) The most worrisome, pathos-filled segment of the piece involved one Noyes parent’s (Marvin Tucker) desperate attempts to reconcile the unusually high score his child earned with the reality he saw with his child at home. Mr. Tucker’s daughter scored proficient in math, yet “struggled with addition and subtraction” at home, even with the help of a private tutor. I think this is pretty critical anecdotal evidence. Something must be off if a parent–one who we can reasonably assume best knows one’s child–himself is in complete disbelief over “positive” test results. I would expect the natural reaction would be to celebrate the astounding progress of one’s child. That he could not do this is at least a sign that something needs to be explained.

But what is most troublesome about this segment is the way that parents are effectively disenfranchised. According to the article, Mr. Tucker tried, through all types of channels, to get an answer from the school about the discrepancy he saw. That Mr. Tucker enlisted the aide of others in the community and even went so far as to stage a protest outside the school board’s office and still heard nothing shows how using one’s voice sometimes leads to no change at all. Will he and his daughter exit?

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This whole controversy is going to, once again, crack open the meta debate around high-stakes testing. I am happy that I no longer teach a tested subject. I felt so much pressure as a 10th grade English teacher last year. I still push myself to advance my students in as many ways as possible, but I feel I can do this naturally, without artifice.

Speaking of testing…DC CAS testing starts in a week. What perfect timing, right?

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One Response

  1. Amelia1

    I think there are still many takeaways from this, especially in our sometimes contradictory methods of assessing quality education.

    It seems not unfair to label charter schools as the new figurehead of education reform in the US, and while fostering an academic culture in otherwise disadvantaged schools is great, there are serious problems with the focus on high stakes tests. The issue with assessing “quality” in charter schools is that our definition of such is so inflexible; charters do a wonderful job, in many cases, of drilling students to ace standardized test scores, but not always to promote critical thinking skills; there was a great study of Massachusetts charters that showed their top-ranked scores but went on to track their students to college– where most dropped out…

    I’ve been enjoying this bloggers take on the issue:

    http://twoyearsattheblackboard.blogspot.com/2011/03/mr-ns-curmudgeonly-rant-about.html

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

Region
D.C. Region
Grade
High School
Subject
English

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