|School Testing Scandals Require New Era of Accountability|
By Ashton Ellis
Wednesday, August 24 2011
The newest wave of cheating scandals is threatening to sweep away the reputation of one of the most famous education reformers from the last decade. With pressure mounting for investigations into several academic miracles-turned-frauds, it is time for the public to demand a new era of accountability.
It’s been a bad summer for those trusting the educators to reform education.
Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the D.C. school system and in many ways the face of public education reform, was the subject of a three-part series by USA Today questioning the miraculous turnaround in test scores during her tenure. From 2007 to 2010, students in Rhee’s district saw dramatic increases in student achievement, such as a jump in math proficiency at one school that went from 22 percent in 2007 to 84 percent in 2008.
Rhee claimed that her method of tying teacher job security to student test performance was the key to success.
In its reporting, however, USA Today revealed that the story is a bit more complicated. According to its review of individual student tests, the paper discovered that when students’ answers were erased and reentered, the students picked the right answer 97 percent of the time on the second try. The probability of that happening is 1 in 100 billion.
Interviews with D.C. teachers and administrators confirmed the paper’s suspicion that widespread cheating took place among school officials erasing wrong answers and replacing them with corrections.
Rhee’s humiliation follows a similar scandal in the Atlanta public school system. Earlier this summer, news broke that 178 officials at 44 different schools changed student answers from wrong to right in order to raise test scores.
Similar cheating scandals are being investigated in Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Before Rhee there was Rod Paige. Prior to serving as Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, Paige was lionized by Bush for his performance as Houston Superintendent of Schools. So enamored was Bush of Paige’s ability to tie a school administrator’s job security to students’ test scores, that Bush touted Houston’s abrupt turnaround as the “Texas Miracle.”
When Bush became president, he elevated Paige to Education Secretary and convinced Congress to pass No Child Left Behind, the federal law that took the Texas model of test score accountability and imposed it on every public school in the country.
But by 2009, post-Paige administrators in Houston publicized evidence that the miracle was a fraud. CBS News reported that one of the methods for achieving high scores was to ban low-performing students from taking the test. On test days, many of Houston’s worst students were told to go home or shuttled around campus while the test was in progress.
Michelle Rhee rose to prominence by applying Paige’s accountability scheme to teachers as well as administrators. After encouraging a PBS documentary crew to film her firing an underperforming principal, Rhee gained a national reputation for being a tough education reformer.
Although there is as yet no evidence that Rhee or Paige knew about the cheating in their districts, their failure to ensure the integrity of the testing process is tarnishing their reputations.
Everyone suffers from the fallout of such deplorable behavior.
For starters, the teachers and administrators who falsified student scores undermined the credibility of a much-needed accountability system. Whatever its imperfections, standardized testing provides the only benchmark so far for ensuring that kids grasp basic concepts before moving on to the next grade.
But with every new cheating scandal that bubbles up, education reformers are made to fight on two fronts. First, the entrenched bureaucracies fight measuring anything other than wage and benefit increases. Second, reform advocates must now battle critics who see padded numbers in some of the success stories as a reason to toss out all efforts to make school officials accountable for the education of the students they ostensibly serve.
Moreover, these scandalized school officials also failed in their duty to model moral behavior to thousands of young people. When a culture of cheating exists, it cannot be limited to an eraser-filled faculty lounge. As USA Today reported, parents and students were aware that the district’s test scores didn’t add up. Parents can only hope that the children they entrusted to fraudulent school officials realize that cheating gets punished, not rewarded.
For that to happen, however, the consequences of cheating will need to be severe. No matter what the pressure to achieve a certain outcome is, no one is justified in defrauding a system trying to help students learn. Because the accountability system rewards superior performance with superior benefits, the teachers and administrators who cheated received pay bonuses, promotions and more funding for their schools.
Now, it’s time to right the wrongs. Anyone identified as a cheater should be fired. Justice demands it. So too do the teachers and administrators who lost their jobs for performing worse on test scores than those who cheated. If accountability means anything, it demands that cheating be called for what it is: a scandal that always ends with a pink slip.
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