Wednesday, November 04, 2009

DOE Caught Cheating On Test Results

Before yesterday is dubbed "Black Tuesday" for the sobering announcement that Memphis City Schools is doing a dismal job educating our students, let's see it for what it is: a day to celebrate.

We have a friend who says that Memphians love to pay people to lie to us - we're doing great in economic development, downtown development and school reform - but clearly this is not a Memphis phenomenon, because the Tennessee Department of Education has conducted the largest fraud in state history with the seductive news year after year that our schools are among the nation's best.

The first step in real change is to face reality. Finally, yesterday, that's what we did.

The facts were not pretty. They were not sugar-coated. There was no way to pretend.


Revelation And Reaction

And that's one of the best things that happened with the revelation that Memphis students got D's in math and reading and F's in social studies and science. It's a precursor to a day in the not-too-distant future when essentially every school in the city district is put on the state's failing list.

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash immediately embraced the results as fodder for his agenda, including more days in the school year, and we were encouraged that he didn't try to explain it away or lay it off on his predecessor's benign neglect (which he could have easily done). We were encouraged that he did not use the day for political theater but to talk about the kids in classrooms.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Department of Education officials should be in ICU for whiplash. After being the perpetrators of the department's long-time, large-scale propaganda campaign to obscure the facts about student performance and to block accountability for DOE's pathetic leadership for better schools, its officials now act like the rest of us have mass amnesia.

In the educational equivalent of a burglar who returns to your house and offers to sell you an alarm, assistant state commissioner of education Connie Smith said: "We are going to get an A in truth in advertising. Proficient will be mastery."

Buck Stops Where

There are so many people culpable in turning Memphis students out into the workplace with the false promise that they were competent in the basics. That's one of the most disturbing parts of public education: the tendency for students' futures to be treated as political fodder. Because of it, for years, the Department of Education - and sometimes Memphis City Schools pre-Kriner Cash - held celebrations of the results when they absolutely knew they were lying to the public.

To follow the dots a la Harry Truman, the buck inevitably stops at Governor Phil Bredesen's desk. In the ninth inning of his terms, he started pushing for the changes in reporting that he knew were needed on the first day that he took the oath of office. Well, thankfully, he's finally seen the light, pushed ahead by the business and philanthropic insistence that the status quo was simply not good enough.

Clearly, there are moral issues in not giving children the quality education that they need to succeed in today's economy and to succeed in life as parents and citizens. But sweep away the moral issues and there's nothing so powerful as the self-interest that dictates that all of us should have in making sure that our city and our state have the smartest men and women in our workforce, the kinds who attracts the jobs, not the other way around.

So, forgive us if we are celebrating the fact that we finally are being told the truth by our public officials in the state of our educational system. It sure beats those phony parties that the Department of Education had each year - complete with balloons and cakes - to feed us the lies that guaranteed them their jobs but shortchanged students who deserved better.

For context, the following is a post from April 14, 2007:

Tennessee Department of Education Is Generous When The Report Card Grades Itself

The release each year by the Tennessee Department of Education of its State Report Card is accompanied by celebration and rhetoric about improving schools, but it’s the educational equivalent of the Detroit Tigers popping the champagne corks after this year’s World Series.

There’s really not much they should be cheering about.

In recent years, DOE has gotten really adept at churning out press releases about the improving school scores in Tennessee, but they’re more about hype than hope. All in all, the students of Tennessee aren’t performing much better than 14 years ago, and in a word, the Report Card is a farce.

It’s one thing to spin the facts. But this is something else altogether.

Government Spin

All of us expect a little spin from government, and to be truthful, all of us like to interpret situations in our own best light, but in this case, the state deliberately misleads the public. After all, surely no one believes – particularly the administrators in Nashville - that almost 90 percent of Tennessee students in the fourth and eighth grades are proficient in math and reading as shown on the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program).

A report written earlier this year by Kevin Carey of Education Sector dramatically showed how much our Department of Education is playing loose with the facts. When compared to the other 50 states, Tennessee Department of Education claims that we are among the top 5 in the U.S. in eighth grade math and reading, fourth grade reading and math, and high school reading.

It’s an incredible claim, especially when a more objective national test of student proficiency paints just the opposite picture for Tennessee. In that test – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – Tennessee ranks #40 and its percentage of proficient students is more in the average range of about 25 per cent. In case your math proficiency has been certified by DOE, we point out that this is a difference of about 65 percent

So, how does Tennessee fare so well in its own tests?

It’s Simple In Its Execution

It’s simple, our state lowers its standards to jack up the results. For example, eighth grade students who answer 40% right in the state’s math test are considered proficient. Just three years ago, they had to answer 51% of the questions right to clear that bar.

At least, it now makes sense why nobody in a fast food restaurant in the state can make correct change these days. They’re getting high marks if they’re only getting 40% right.

But in the interest of fairness, it’s probably unrealistic to expect anything else from DOE. After all, if you were given the power to evaluate your own performance every year, wouldn’t you do whatever it takes to give yourself high marks?

Essentially, that’s what happens here, because the much-vaunted No Child Left Behind allows each state to develop their own tests and to define their own levels of proficiency. Faced with loss of federal funding if they don’t make progress under No Child Left Behind, they have strong incentive to massage the results.

To be fair, Tennessee isn’t alone in playing games with the numbers. At least 40 other states are doing the same, which means that No Child Left Behind in the end is the poster child for unintended consequences. Passed by Congress as the way to let the public know if its schools are improving, it does just the opposite by presenting statistics every year that are virtually meaningless if you’re trying to determine if schools are better.

Putting On A Pretty Face

In his report, Mr. Carey puts states on a “Pangloss Index,” named for the character in Candide who, despite all evidence to the contrary, always argued that all was well. On that index, Tennessee’s results rank it as the 11th best state in student achievement when compared to the other 49 states.

Meanwhile, NAEP ranks Tennessee as #40 in student achievement, and more disturbing, since 1992, test scores have been relatively been flat except for fourth grade math.

Since 1994, fourth grade reading scores have moved all the way from 212 to 214; fourth grade math scores have climbed from 211 to 232; eighth grade reading scores have moved a grand total of one point, from 258 to 259; and eighth grade math has gone from 259 to 271.

Curiously, the state Department of Education doesn’t schedule any press conferences to announce these scores, which come from the only national student test that allows us to actually compare students’ performance across state lines.

The Time For National Standards

All of this begs the question of why we don’t have a national standard that allows us to have comparables as part of No Child Left Behind, but in the interest of states’ rights, when the federal law was passed, each state was given the power to interpret their own standards and progress.

As Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson said in The Commercial Appeal series: “If every state is going to create its own assessments and tools of what is proficient and advanced, then what’s the point? We’ve got to figure out what is proficient as a nation.”

She’s right, because what’s happening now is perpetuating the cruelest kind of hoax on states like ours. At a time when the economy depends on our ability to produce knowledge workers for the new economy, we’re deluded into thinking we’re making progress. By the time that it becomes clear that we’re not, it will be too late, and we don’t know about the rest of Tennessee, but here in Memphis, we simply don’t have time to waste.

As long as Tennessee is able – and most of all, willing – to set the bar low so proficiency is high, the public is given a false sense of security that the people in the Tennessee Department of Education are taking care of business.

Asking The Tough Questions For A Change

Hopefully, now that Governor Phil Bredesen has breezed to victory and says that education will be his top priority in his second term, he’ll ask the tough questions and demand more out of DOE. He prides himself on his experience as a businessman but what businessman, much less governor, could make wise decision about investment or success if someone is cooking the books.

Tennessee had its own standards in place before No Child Left Behind was even passed in Washington, D.C., and its stated intent back then was to make sure our schools produced students who could compete with students from Singapore and Hong Kong. Over time, this attitude has eroded, with political spin trumping public accountability.

Some things are so important that they should rise above the normal day-to-day politics in Nashville. Surely this is one of them.


Anonymous said...

This is why we should also lament the lack of investigative reportintg in our newspapers. The string of D's and F's is not new. This same data -- the State Report Card -- has been publicly available for a number of years (with the same dismal grades for Memphis) So, too, has NAEP data. **Here is a link to the State Report Card if you're interested.**

Of course the Department of Education is not going to put out press releases highlighting bum results. Do companies actively put out bad news about themselves? That's what the media "is supposed to do" -- report in an objective way.

But that doesn't happen. Most stories are superficial with a couple of quotes from all the wrong people. It's no big surprise that the larger public is mostly uninformed about how kids are really doing.

Luckily that is about to change, and the students will be the ones that will -- and should -- benefit the most. If they know how they are doing, let's say in 4th grade, using true benchmarks, then there is time to make adjustments to get themselves on the right track for college and decent paying jobs thereafter.

But, if we give them a false sense of security, then they move throught the system (and it's too late by the time they leave high school).

Anonymous said...

Amen, amen, amen. Now if only that same accountability would make its way to classroom grading. Kids don't compare their test scores on NAEP or TCAP, but they sure as hell ask questions when they have a 4.0 but get a 16 on the ACT, visit high-performing schools and see what their peers are learning or go to college and can't keep up. It starts at the top and this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Zippy the giver said...

And I got flamed almost to death when ever I said something about that. Hahahahahahaha. It didn't bother me, I knew this days was coming, I make sure of things like that.
Some people just talk, a LOT. I always ask if anyone else has bothered to report things when I do and the answer is always no, even when there is ample public evidence of corruption, no one reports.
Things would never get this bad if people did and followed up.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post. Sad but so true! A wake up call was long overdue, and I work in the school system. I would often ask teachers if they thought that the work they accepted from these children earning an "A" or "B" would stand up if the child moved to another county, state or country. My answer is HECK NO! It's so sad that we have done this grave disservice to our children. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of positive change.

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