A discussion on Twitter with Voice of San Diego’s CEO Scott Lewis yesterday prompted me to dig deeper into the whole question of how and when we use student achievement tests today.
This all started with my critical (and cynical) take on a story published by VOSD about superintendent-designee Cindy Marten. The account led with (and makes much of) test data showing other elementary schools had better rates of improvement on test scores than Central Elementary, where she has reigned as principal over the last few years.
I erroneously assumed in closing yesterday’s column (by saying ‘that dog won’t hunt anymore’) that the realization of just how flawed and failed the use of test scores as a primary measure of educational progress was by now widely evident. I was wr…wr…wrr…wrong. Smart people still haven’t gotten the message.
Scott’s rebuttal to my pot shots on Twitter regarding the article (remember we’re dealing with 149 characters here, so things are by necessity terse) was to point out that test scores are the most observable gauge of performance. ‘What other measure do we have?’ was the essence of his defense. That was a question not answerable in the realm of tweets, and it needed to be answered.
Too Easy to Be True…
Cut now to Atlanta, where the media hordes are circling former superintendent of schools Dr. Beverly L. Hall and her nearly three dozen subordinates as they turn themselves in to face criminal charges connected with an achievement tests cheating scandal.
From educator Bill Ayers (yes, that one), in an unpublished letter to the editor of the NY Times (posted by Teachken at Daily Kos today):
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 Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s team investigating their local scandal looked further a field, trying to get some sense of just how widespread cheating on achievement tests was around the U.S.:
In the fall of 2010, a team of four reporters and data specialists began to assemble several years of test scores from every public school in America. Eventually they analyzed scores at 69,000 public schools; they also vetted their statistical methods with national experts.
In the spring of 2012, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 196 school districts throughout the U.S. exhibited suspicious patterns of test results that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating. A month later, it reported that dozens of schools awarded the nation’s highest educational honor – designation as a National Blue Ribbon Schools – had highly unlikely test scores.
The response from many of those districts and schools sounded eerily familiar: We don’t have systemic cheating here. We just have high standards.
The Orange Juice Can Test
I would interject here that if we were talking about results from a machine or medical procedure being shown to be repeatedly and deliberately skewed, it’s more likely those outcomes wouldn’t be accepted for long. Orange juice cans tied to an electrometer are not really a good measure of mental health, except for those blindly faithful to the entity selling the equipment and/or promising happiness.
Similarly narrow metrics other than test scores have also been repeatedly shown to be vulnerable to manipulation. From blogger and education critic Teacherken:
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%.
Back to Mr. 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.
Beyond the Test Scores
Getting back to the topic at hand, here’s Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writing on school reform in general, who nails the reason Cindy Marten is a good choice for San Diego’s schools:
School reform cannot be something that ostensibly smart, ostentatiously tough “superstar” superintendents do to a school system and the people who depend on it. Reform has to be something that is done with a community of teachers, students and parents — with honesty and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned humility.
Using test scores to quantify success is like expecting a yardstick to calculate the area of a three dimensional object; it can give us measurements useful in such a calculation, but it will never do the math for us. With education, we need to add in even more dimensions, both subjective and sociological.
So, there is no simple answer here to the ‘What other measure do we have?’ question.
I’m not accusing San Diego Schools of manipulating test scores. And the VOSD article did have a wealth of other information about the superintendent-designee.
Just knowing that the answer isn’t simple is the point I want to make. And I think it’s misleading to start out framing any education story that way.
Databases Being Used to Blackball Job Applicants
The New York Times leads off today with an article exploring the use of companies’ offering databases for prospective employers to check up on retail job applicants’ past record.
The problem is that, like the credit check business, should erroneous information appear, it’s difficult to challenge and expunge. Employers, eager to weed out potentially dishonest applicants, are increasing relying on these databases to make hiring decisions.
So we can expect some big time lawsuits in the near future.
The repositories of information, like First Advantage Corporation’s Esteem database, often contain scant details about suspected thefts and routinely do not involve criminal charges. Still, the information can be enough to scuttle a job candidate’s chances.
Some of the employees, who submit written statements after being questioned by store security officers, have no idea that they admitted committing a theft or that the information will remain in databases, according to interviews with consumer lawyers, regulators and employees.
The databases, which have tens of thousands of subscribers and are used by major retailers like Target, CVS and Family Dollar, are aimed at combating employee theft, which accounts for a large swath of missing merchandise. The latest figures available, from 2011, put the loss at about 44 percent of missing merchandise, valued at about $15 billion, according to a trade group, the National Retail Federation.
Days of Anti-Drone Protests Start Tomorrow
The ongoing Veterans for Peace demonstration (3-7pm) at General Atomics Predator drones production site ( map- General Atomics Way and Kirkham Way, Poway) will kick off four days (April 4-7) of protests in San Diego.
The four days are comprised of multiple events, each event coordinated by different organizations. Here’s a schedule for the protests.
CodePink founder Medea Benjamin was contacted yesterday by an employee at General Atomics:
“I just got a call from someone who said he was an employee at General Atomics in San Diego. He said they just sent out info telling folks about the upcoming protests and suggesting they come to work at different times and through different entrances. He said he has worked there for many years, that he didn’t have any problems with the surveillance drones, but when they started arming them, he didn’t like it. He thinks they are evil because they kill civilians and help recruit new militants. He wanted to thank us for the protest. He said the only problem he has is that we don’t do them often enough–that if we really want to have an impact (including on employees), we have to be more persistent! He wouldn’t give me his name, but he said he had heard of my book and was going to buy it. I asked him to stay in touch.”
Please come out and join us at all or any of the events! With San Diego proposed as an even larger “drone hub,” this is the time for us to be seen and heard!
San Diego’s Fuzzy Budget Math Explained
Hey! Have you heard? The City’s got a budget surplus coming. Yay! Money for services, right?
Not so fast. Even a fifth grader can understand after watching this video from the Center on Policy Initiatives:
On This Day: 1860 – The first Pony Express riders left St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento, CA. The trip across country took about 10 days. The Pony Express only lasted about a year and a half. 1968 – Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “mountaintop” speech just 24 hours before he was assassinated. 1989 – Pepsi dismissed Madonna as a spokesperson after her “Like a Prayer” video was called “blasphemous” by the Vatican.
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