Special report: Your current society’s actual values!
PART 1—USA TODAY, FORCED TO ACT (permalink): Before praising our nation’s most colorful newspaper, let’s ask the obvious question:
Why was it left to USA TODAY to produce these remarkable reports?
A bit of background:
USA TODAY is often mocked for its full-color, throw-away nature. It tends to produce short takes on the news, unlike Gotham’s gloried Grey Lady and her famous country cousin way down south in DC. But:
In the past few weeks, USA TODAY has produced a remarkable series of detailed reports on one key aspect of standardized testing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/9/11). In the past decade, such testing has dominated our cosmically bungled public discussions of our public schools.
Question: Why was it left to USA TODAY to produce these remarkable reports?
Before we give the obvious answer, let’s offer a quick overview of yesterday’s report—a report which savages standardized testing practices in Michelle Rhee’s hapless Washington.
Good lord! Could anyone be more clueless than Rhee—or perhaps more dishonest? At one point in yesterday’s lengthy report, Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello described the way pressure was built under Rhee—pressure to jack up those test scores.
Rhee took over the DC schools in June 2007. “From the start,” the pressure was on, or so the scribes report:
GILLUM AND BELLO (3/28/11): From the start, Rhee emphasized a need to raise scores, restore calm to chaotic schools and close those with lagging scores and small enrollments. She paid bonuses to principals and teachers who produced big gains on scores. She let go dozens of principals and fired at least 600 teachers. Others retired or quit.
The pressure on principals was unrelenting, says Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal who is now president of the Council of School Officers, representing principals and other administrators. Every year, Jefferson says, Rhee met with each principal and asked what kind of test score gains he would post in the coming school year. Jefferson says principals told her that Rhee expected them to increase scores by 10 percentile points or more every year. “What do you do when your chancellor asks, ‘How many points can you guarantee this year?’” Jefferson says. "How is a principal supposed to do that?"
Rhee churned through principals. The Washington Post reported that Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some left on their own, either resigning or retiring; other principals, on one-year contracts, were let go for not producing quickly enough.
Clueless—or dishonest? Anyone with an ounce of experience, and an ounce of sense, would have understood the obvious problem created by these tactics. Unless a school system creates very careful security procedures, teachers and principals subjected to these kinds of pressure—offered these kinds of rewards—will, in some instances, cheat.
Everyone has always known this, dating back a good many years. Let’s review the kind of cheating USA TODAY explored in yesterday’s report—all through the brilliant, detailed series it has published this month.
What kind of cheating seems to have occurred in some DC schools under Rhee—perhaps in many schools? The kind of cheating where a teacher or a principal changes answers on students’ answer sheets—changes answers from wrong to right after the testing is over! In yesterday’s report, Gillum and Bello say that quite a few DC schools have shown signs of such misconduct during the years of Rhee’s reign. As they start, they focus on one particular school, the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus (pre-K through 8). And they describe the type of misconduct at issue:
GILLUM AND BELLO: A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.
Erasures are detected by the same electronic scanners that CTB/McGraw-Hill, D.C.'s testing company, uses to score the tests. When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student.
In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.
On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.
Say what? “Wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones?” And this occurred to a highly improbable degree, over all three years of Rhee’s reign? In their report, Gillum and Bello move beyond the pattern at Noyes to describe this pattern at others schools—and they describe the way the Rhee administration refused to investigate these groaning statistical indications, from the 2008 testing on.
At this point, a reader might well wonder if anyone had ever heard of such gruesome misconduct before? It may seem odd to think that a teacher or a principal would behave this way.
Sorry. Dream on.
This type of conduct has long been understood with the testing industry. We remember how stunned we were when a high official at a major testing company told us about this problem at some time around 1980! Even way back then, testing companies would scan a school system’s answer sheet for unusual erasure patterns, we were told—although the school system had to pay an additional fee for the service.
We were amazed when we first heard about this—thirty years ago.
Here at THE HOWLER, we first described this particular problem in 1999. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/13/99, with a link to an earlier report. (And with a link to a piece we wrote about apparent cheating for the Baltimore Evening Sun—in 1981.)
People, can we talk? Teachers and principals are only human, just like almost everyone else. Everyone has always known that this kind of thing can and will occur, if you build huge pressure around your tests and you don’t create careful security practices. In the case of the DC schools under Rhee, every practice seems to have been bungled, perhaps in a purposeful way. Massive pressure was built; security practices seem largely AWOL. Obvious signs of cheating were ignored. Instead, apparent cheaters were handed cash prizes, reaching as much as $10,000! And one of the biggest apparent cheaters got handed a major new job!
Rhee did some things right in DC, but on balance she was always a mess. But because of her ludicrous views and her obvious lying, she has always a major favorite of the “education reform billionaires.” She came to DC from Highest Gotham, where she was a long-standing “made man”—a favorite of billionaire Bloomberg and them. And of course, when she got to DC, the local newspaper adored her.
Almost surely, this explains why it fell to USA TODAY to produce these brilliant reports.
People mock USA TODAY, saying it’s no Grey Lady. But all through the last decade, our highest newspapers have been in the bag for the “education reform billionaires.” The New York Times has covered for Bloomberg, as have Gotham socialite journalists like Charlie Rose. To the south, the Washington Post is almost literally owned by the testing industry. Meanwhile, “educational experts” keep their traps shut, sometimes raking in Gates money. Major pundits like Kristof and Brooks recite the latest mots from these largely worthless “experts” as if they were a pair of cicadas emerging from holes in the ground.
Beyond all that, the career liberal world just sits and stares. Many liberals get righteously mad when we say that. But it’s an obvious historical fact: Career liberals walked away from low-income kids about three decades ago.
And so it fell to our most colorful paper to produce these important reports—reports which represent a down payment on the kind of work which should be done about low-income schools. Tomorrow, we’ll continue to look at what this colorful newspaper has discovered through its attempt to do actual journalism. But if you want to understand your current society’s actual values, we’ll offer this bit of advice:
Just watch the way these important reports disappear in the rest of the “mainstream press”—and in the “career liberal” world.
Tomorrow: Where were the experts?
The truth about career liberals/1999 vintage: Go ahead—click on that 12-year-old report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/13/99). If you scroll to the bottom (“Let’s play dumbbell”), you can read a gong-show speech by Rep. Ben Jones, concerning the deeply vile Candidate Gore. The speech was offered on—what else?—the vicious cable show, Hardball.
There were still eleven months to go. The career liberal world kept its big traps shut—except when “liberals” like Rich and O’Donnell recited these same stupid scripts.Today, the career liberal world kisses Chris Matthews’ asp, thus gaining career advancement. They kept their big traps shut back then, for the same rather obvious reason.