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How Education Reform Taught Teachers to Cheat

Sep 20, 2018 by

In school districts across the country, being held accountable for grades and graduation rates has motivated educators to tamper with results. Some places are starting to crack down on this temptation.

by J. Brian Charles

Thirty years ago, the public schools in Prince George’s County, Md., were hailed as symbols of success. Their students ranked in the 70th percentile nationally in reading and math. Prince George’s seemed to be powerful evidence against the idea that a mostly black school district with a high concentration of children from low- to moderate-income families could not thrive. In the ensuing years, achieving success came to be more of a challenge. The schools began to see ever-larger concentrations of poor children, with nearly two-thirds of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

Even so, the numbers continued to look good for a few years. There was a simple reason for that, says Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard University who has studied the county’s school system. In Koretz’ blunt words, the numbers were “juiced.” Test preparation was prioritized over genuine instruction. Children spent much of their time being trained to navigate the ever-more frequent exams and were tipped off on the actual test questions. The school district started test preparation in kindergarten for exams that students wouldn’t take until third grade.

The first danger signal came when Maryland changed its state exams in the 1990s. The district’s scores plummeted. Only Baltimore city, heavily impacted by poverty, scored lower than Prince George’s on student performance in math and reading and in graduation rates. The poor performance in Prince George’s was underscored by the amount of money the district was spending. Just seven of Maryland’s 24 counties spent more per pupil than Prince George’s did.

By the early 2000s, enrollment was flagging as parents pulled their children from the struggling system. Prince George’s schools lost an average of 1,000 students per year from 2003 to 2013. The children who left the district were largely from middle-class and affluent families. While enrollment dropped, the percentage of children qualifying for free and reduced lunch rose 20 percent. Those children lagged behind their wealthier counterparts in academic achievement.

In 2010, Rushern Baker was elected Prince George’s county executive. As enrollment continued to drop, and with it the funding to run one of the 25 largest school districts in the nation, Baker devised a reform plan. Copying aspects of school turnaround efforts in Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., Baker leveraged his connections in the state Capitol to convince lawmakers to hand him control of the district. It would be Baker, and not the school board, who picked the school chief. Baker tapped Kevin Maxwell, a former principal, to run the district in 2013, and in 2017 he renewed Maxwell’s contract. The plan seemed to be working. After losing 13,000 students in fewer than 10 years, county schools saw an increase that brought them near their peak enrollment of 137,000 students in the early 2000s. With the increased enrollment, the district had the funds to offer more courses. Perhaps most important, graduation rates began to rise as well, increasing from 73 percent to 81 in four years.

Source: How Education Reform Taught Teachers to Cheat

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