A pointed commentary on the cheating scandal in Atlanta

Apr 3, 2013 by

Kenneth J. Bernstein –
which was sent to the NY Times as a possible op-ed / letter to the editor, but not published.  I am posting it here with permission, and will also offer some commentary:

The road to the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta (NYT 3/30/2013) runs right through the White House.The former superintendent, Dr. Beverly L. Hall, and her 34 obedient subordinates now face criminal charges, but the central role played by a group of un-indicted and largely unacknowledged co-conspirators, her powerful enablers, is barely noted.

Beyond her “strong relations with the business elite” who reportedly made her “untouchable” in Atlanta, she was a national super-star for more than a decade because her work embodied the shared educational policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. In the testing frenzy that characterized both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top Dr. Hall was a winner, consistently praised over many years by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for raising test scores, hosted at the White House in 2009 as superintendent of the year, and appointed in 2010 by President Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences. When the Atlanta scandal broke in 2011 Secretary Duncan rushed to assure the public that it was “very isolated” and “an easy one to fix.”

That’s not true. According to a recently released study by the independent monitoring group FairTest, cheating is “widespread” and fully documented in 37 states and Washington D.C.

The deeper problem is reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.

I recently interviewed leaders at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools—the school Arne Duncan attended for 12 years and the school where the Obamas, the Duncans, and the Emanuels sent their children—and asked what role test scores played in teacher evaluations there. The answer was none. I pressed the point and was told that in their view test scores have no value in helping to understand or identify good teaching.

William Ayers

Distinguished Professor of Education (retired)

University of Illinois at Chicago

Please keep reading

By now when we hear about miracle turnarounds in test scores – or drop-out rates – we should all be suspicious.   There is a pattern to these that is all too familiar.  The only question is how the system is being gamed.   It is embarrassing that the American Association of School Administrators has not learned its lesson –  it similarly honored Rod Paige for his work in Houston, an award used to by the last administration to justify him being elevated to US Secretary of Education.  Paige had claimed a miraculous rise in the percentage of student graduating from high school.  Only if one tracked the students entering with the cohort in 7th grade and graduating on time, the real number was not over 90% (a good number for a suburban district and incredible for an inner city one) but under 50%.

Part of this was the result of the games common in Texas, where a so-called state miracle was taking place.  Scores on the state-wide tests were going up.  Those tests were given in 10th grade.  But many students never took them.  They were held back in 9th grade, sometimes more than once.  If they decided to drop out for many that fact was masked by manipulating how their exit was coded.  They might for example be asked if they were going  to seek a GED, and if they said they might eventually, rather than being listed as dropping out, they were listed as having transferred to an alternative educational solution.   Thus they were not considered drop-outs.  Sometimes, particularly with students who were athletically gifted, after a 2nd year in 9th grade, they were told they had made so much improvement they were skipped over 10th grade directly to 11th grade – and thus not tested.

We know that scores in Houston on SATs and on NAEP remained flats, even as the scores on the Texas tests soared.  People pointed this out.  The media, wanting a good story, did not probe as it should have.

In the years since, in place after place, if one dug deeply enough, one found problems.  Sometimes it was just untruths, such as Michelle Rhee’s claims for miraculous turnarounds among the students she taught in Baltimore.  Sometimes it is because there were problems with the tests, which was why the supposedly improved scores in New York City actually represented no improvement at all.   In too many cases, there was clear evidence of cheating that somehow did not get as thoroughly examined as what we have seen in Atlanta –  that is true of the DC schools under Rhee.

Yesterday Bill Ayers sent me an email, after I had sent him the link to Eugene Robinson: The racket with standardized test scores.  I know Bill slightly, having reviewed several of his books.  The work he did first as a teacher himself, and then as a teacher educator, is something I greatly admire.  I am not alone in the admiration.   One of my most pointed criticisms of then Senator Obama during his primary campaign for the nomination was his dissembling about his relationship with Bill Ayers, referring to him as some English professor who lived in the neighborhood.  Obama not only began a campaign with a fundraiser in the home of Bill and his wife Bernadine Dorhn, herself now one of the nation’s great experts on juvenile justice, he and Ayers both sat on a key board about education in Chicago.   Obama is too smart not to have known Ayers and the work her did.

I told Bill I thought his letter deserved to be seen, and offered to post it here.  He thanked me for the idea and gave me permission.

PLease note – this administration honored Beverly Hall.  When it comes to education, this administration has a history of these kinds of missteps

—  Arne Duncan saying that Katrina was the best thing to happen to education in New Orleans, thereby praising the establishment of the Recovery School District, which in fact has performed no better than did the regular public schools from which the students were drawn

— Arne Duncan praising the firing of all the teachers in Central Falls

— this administration pushing out policies that have no track record of excess, and insisting upon the application of tying teacher evaluation to student test scores when the professional literature demonstrates the clear problems of doing so

— this administration insisting upon states expanding the use of charter schools without insisting upon any meaningful accountability or oversight for those schools

One might wonder if the fact that Joe Biden’s brother Frank is a lobbyist for a chain of charter schools has any influence upon this administration’s policies.   But that is a side issue.

The real issue should be the well-being of the students.  We should  recognize how our policies distort education for students, as well rendering even more meaningless the results of those test scores upon which we place so much weight.

If nothing else, remember these words from the letter from Bill Ayers:

The deeper problem is reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.

Those of us who were serious about helping students having been making these points for years.  I thank Bill for allowing me to share his powerful explanation.Peace.

via Daily Kos: A pointed commentary on the cheating scandal in Atlanta.

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