The Uptick in Standardized Test Scores in the Nation’s Capital: Less than Meets the Eye (A Rant)

Lee Sigelman Jul 17 '09

Institutions respond in myriad ways to mandates to provide quantitative evidence of performance improvement. Sometimes they actually try to improve performance itself. Their first line of defense, though, often consists of taking steps that make everything, themselves included, look better irrespective of whether any real improvement has taken place.

For example, the university from which I draw my paycheck wants to move up in the US News ratings. So one thing it does is look very closely at the criteria US News uses and try to game them. US News takes points off for class sizes above 20? Easy! We’ll cap enrollments at 19 in classes that had typically enrolled 21 to 25 students, and herd the excluded students into classes that were way above 20 in the first place.

Keep that in mind as I tell you about much-ballyhooed recent improvements in the DC school system.

DC has a bright, energetic, attractive, ambitious, smooth, omnipresent, self-promoter of a mayor, Adrian Fenty. Shortly after he was elected, Fenty cloned himself by hiring the bright, energetic, ambitious, attractive, ambitious, smooth, omnipresent, etc., Michelle Rhee to be chancellor of the horrendous DC public school system. Both preached reform, and Rhee was given near-dictatorial powers to make change happen. She fired principals willy-nilly and closed underperforming schools at will. It seems like every day, there are Fenty and Rhee, smiling for the cameras, making some new announcement of the educational reform du jour.

Fine. As Lenin is said to have said, “If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs.” And Fenty and Rhee are hardly the only publicity hounds in the politics business.

Last week, Fenty announced that standardized test scores in the District were way up – good news at long last! “Powerful evidence of the incredible work being done by teachers, principals, and most importantly our students” (and, of course, by Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee). This was great stuff – a story about the DC schools so unusual (because it was positive) as to be of “man bites dog” or “bull throws congressman” proportions. All that adoring media coverage must have been right – the long-awaited progress was finally happening!

Well, maybe not. In today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque details how those DC test scores rose.

bq. Students who had been close to scoring at a level that would be counted as indicating proficiency were given special tutoring designed to inch them over the proficiency hurdle – a step that Turque quotes one teacher (who belongs to a group that opposes some of Rhee’s programs) describing as being “less about serving children and more about make the adults who run the school system look good. … There are students in my classes who are struggling with basics, and yet we’re pouring all of this money into a program not just focused on tests, but on tests for a few students so the scores will look good.”

bq. The school system’s databases were reorganized, which resulted in dropping some students (apparently bottom-feeders in terms of academic achievement) from the ranks of those who had to be tested.

bq. Failure was redefined. In earlier years, students who didn’t take the test were counted as failures. Starting in this year, those students were treated as missing data, not failures.

bq. Taking advantage of the fact that after a few years of standardized testing, teachers generally improve at “teaching to the test” and students’ test-taking skills improve, too.

Rhee herself describes these strategems as the pursuit of low-hanging fruit and says she’s “very excited about next year.”

Hip, hip, hooray for performance measurement. Things are going so well in the DC school system!