If the world were as based on merit as Michelle Rhee and her cadres like to say they want to construct schools to operate, she would have no credibility left, and wouldn’t be able to reach by phone any of her rich friends bankrolling her reform agenda. Rhee responded to the serious allegations in USA Today about cheating on standardized tests at DC public schools with the typical approach of a guilty politician: questioning the motives of an opposition uninvolved in the investigation and refusing to engage with the issue.
“It isn’t surprising,” Rhee said in a statement Monday, “that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved … unless someone cheated.”
USA TODAY’s investigation into test scores “is an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels,” Rhee said.
Rhee, who said Monday night that the investigation “absolutely lacked credibility,” had declined to speak with USA TODAY despite numerous attempts before an article ran online and in Monday’s newspaper. Her comments were made during the taping of PBS’ Tavis Smiley show to air on Tuesday night.
So Rhee hid from the investigation, even while Chancellor of the schools (Rhee was told of this in 2008, according to USAT, refused to look into the problem, then authorized a pro forma investigation by an outside consulting company which cleared every school). When it finally came out, she merely insulted longtime enemies rather than address the concerns. Sarah Palin’s got nothing on her.
Unlike Rhee, the District of Columbia Board of Education is taking this seriously, and will review the irregularities.
Without the success of public schools in DC, Rhee is just another person with the same ideas of privatization and union-busting so palatable to right-wing corporatists. And this is not the first time test scores associated with her have come into question. She claimed marked growth in test scores when she was with Teach for America without any evidence, and it turned out that the scores did not improve at the level she claimed. Rhee shrugged this off by saying that the principal told her about the increase.
Nobody is arguing that Rhee physically went in and erased wrong answers on the bubble sheets of DC Schools’ students. It’s more that she created an environment that favored cheating by either teachers or administrators, as Dana Goldstein explains.
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.
In the era of No Child Left Behind, Campbell’s Law has proved true again and again. When the federal government began threatening to restructure or shut-down schools that did not achieve across-the-board student “proficiency” on state reading and math exams, states responded by creating standardized tests that were easier and easier to pass. Alabama, for example, reported that 85 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2005, even though only 22 percent of the state’s students demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard, no-stakes exam administered by the federal government.
Simultaneously, instances of outright cheating were rising nationwide. The USA Today investigation on the probable cheating in Washington, D.C. is just one article in a must-read series based on student achievement data culled from 24,000 public schools across the country. The paper found 1,610 instances in which test score gains from year to year exceeded three standard deviations—a jump greater than that of 99.7 percent of all test-takers annually in any given state, the threshold at which statisticians agree that test results may be suspect.
There may be tests that don’t involve filling in a bubble that aren’t as easily gamed – the SAT requires an essay now. So this doesn’t necessarily mean standardized tests should all be thrown away. It does mean that other elements simply have to be involved to get an accurate picture of student achievement, otherwise kids only learn strategies for multiple choice exams, and teachers and principals learn that there’s a benefit to either rigorously teaching to the test or goosing their kids’ scores.
In fact, there’s one champion for such an approach, based on a comment yesterday, and his name is Barack Obama.
“One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math,” the president said. “All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting.”
“And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in,” Obama said. “They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”
Now, Obama can prove by example, instead of sinking money into Race to the Top. But if you want to tie schools and teachers to performance, you cannot do it with such perverse measurements. Reformers like Michelle Rhee need to be held accountable, just as they claim they’re doing.