The rotten fruits of incentivized testing

So yesterday I painted three little pictures from the big constellation that is standardized testing. A conversation between two girls, a scene with an out-of-control principal, and 35 mug shots of school administrators heading to the pokey for altering test results then lying about it.

Not pretty pictures!

But the ugliness of standardized testing is much, much larger.

It’s just gotten big enough to ensnare one of its chief proponents, one of the loudest voices for incentivizing test results, the darling of the media and education reform.

Michelle Rhee, formerly superintendent of DC public schools.

She has some splainin to do. It turns out lots of grown-ups under her watch cheated on standardized tests by erasing those little bubbles that were colored in wrong and coloring in the correct answers. By the thousands.

Now why would a grown-up do that sort of thing? Isn’t cheating on tests the province of desperate kids?

Well, a grown-up might do it if job security were at stake. Which it was. A grown-up might do it if there were money involved. Which there was. Which there is.

By now we all know that federal programs such as Race to the Top give “successful” schools with constantly improving (though statistically impossible) standardized test scores lots of money! And schools whose scores don’t constantly improve are labeled “failing” and, well, we all know what happens to those schools.

First thing is, they don’t get the money. Then other stuff happens.

54 schools in Chicago are “failing.” Their scores are in the crapper. Aren’t their scores in the crapper? I mean, we hear the schools are the worst of the worst. Or maybe we heard that they’re the emptiest of the empty. Wait, what’s the matter with them again? Um, I’m getting off the track here.

Anyway, never you mind that in some of those 54 schools, 1/3 of the children are autistic, or many are homeless, or everyone’s in poverty. Standardized testing tells us all we need to know. Their doors will be shut, the children will pick their ways across broken, trash-strewn sidewalks for a 20-minute walk, and the buildings will sit empty, slowly crumbling until they wear the proud red X of the condemned-but-standing.

Who would want that for their school?!

Why no one, of course! Especially not caring, concerned grown-ups who are in the business of educating the children.

So caring folks caring for the children might do that. They might erase mistakes and bubble in the correct answers. It’s in the best interest of the children.

Turns out that’s just what happened in DC public schools.

Others have written about this brilliantly here and here. Here’s a brief summary of the story.

Smoke has followed Michelle Rhee for years about this issue, but no one ever found any significant fire. One teacher was terminated under her watch for something called “WTR erasures” (wrong-to-right, that is). (Although more than 700 teachers were fired by her for low test scores.)

It turns out that as many as 70 schools and 191 teachers were probably involved in WTR erasures in DC public schools. Over these years Rhee was praised for turning around DC public schools and raising scores inspirationally (not to say, supernaturally). One school, Aitan, raised its scores in one year 29 percentiles in reading and 43 percentiles in math. The staff at that school received $276,265 in bonuses from Rhee as a result.

Rhee never followed through with an aggressive investigation despite the fact that she had received a very damning memo from the person contracted to look into possible cheating.  The memo was never acted on and somehow slipped to the bottom of some mountain of paperwork somewhere, exiting her memory altogether.

This memo has finally surfaced from its bureaucratic slumbers. Its rediscovery may have the effect of pulling the bottom card out of a huge flimsy house of cards. The house of cards being, of course, the desperate national political devotion to standardized testing, its use as a measure of school, teacher, and principal success, and the linking of test scores to rewards and disincentives.

Rhee may never be called to account for what happened in DC public schools under her watch. She left the post in 2010. She now traverses the nation lobbying on behalf of her reform methods through her group StudentsFirst. To date, at least 25 states have adopted her ‘produce or else’ test-score based system of evaluating teachers.

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