Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Doing a Number on Us

We're beginning to get a chance to take a glimpse behind the Wizard of Oz's curtain on the puffed up school test scores and graduation rates. Yesterday, the NY Times continued its fine reporting on those scores-you know, the ones that have suddenly transformed city school kids into brainiacs; and the concerns expressed relate not only to question of whether these tests are watered down, but whether they are also a product of obsessive teaching to the test:

"In its campaign to extend the mayor’s school control law, which the State Senate is expected to take up this week, the Bloomberg administration has used the rising test scores as evidence of improved teaching and learning under its direction. Still, educators continue to debate the true value of the tests and a curriculum guided by them, arguing that some of the rise in scores is attributable simply to students’ growing comfort with test-taking, and that some of the skills developed to prepare for the exams, like time-allocation techniques and multiple-choice shortcuts, are poor substitutes for true understanding of key concepts."

And, as far as the watered down issue is concerned: "Questions of whether the state tests have been made too easy grew in 2007, when the results of a federal test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed that the city’s eighth graders had made no significant gains in reading or math under the mayor’s control. (Fourth-grade math and reading scores on the federal test rose; new federal results are expected this fall.) Average SAT scores for city students fell 2 percent from 2004 to 2008, though that is partly explained by the increasing number of students who took the tests: 40,500 last year, up from 33,150. Critics ask: If students were really learning more and better, as opposed to just better learning the state testing protocol, wouldn’t their performance rise on all manner of measurements?"

Yes, wouldn't they? But the gap between test scores and actual learning has yet to be fully examined-and with the flim flammers at the DOE, it's unlikely to happen with any integrity: "Howard T. Everson, a senior research fellow at City University of New York and chairman of the Technical Advisory Group, a collection of experts who oversee the state testing process, said he believed New York’s tests were “about as good as we can build them.” But he said that with so much riding on the tests, there was a need for greater study to certify that rising scores correspond with a gain in learning. “Unfortunately, I think some of the gains that we’re seeing are probably related to test-score inflation, meaning that people are using inappropriate ways of teaching to the test,” he said. “Instead of really good time spent on instruction, they’re doing a lot of test prep and drill.”

Which brings us to the graduation rates that were the focus of a recent Bill Thompson audit. As Wayne Barrett reports, the city's crack auditor, Ernst and Young, acted more like the firm of Dewey, Cheathum, and Howe in its immediate, and inaccurate, critique of the Comptroller's audit: "When Bill Thompson issued a recent audit questioning the high school graduation rate claims of the Bloomberg administration, the Department of Education enlisted its prestigious outside auditor, Ernst & Young, to rebut the comptroller's findings. But the E&Y partner who signed the unusual June 22 letter challenging Thompson's findings, David Milkosky, turns out to be a thin reed for Bloomberg to lean on."

Thin? More like anorexic, in our view: "Milkosky, who is "the coordinating partner" for the E&Y team that oversaw its supposedly "independent" audit of the graduation rate as part of a roughly $2 million-a-year contract with the DOE, also headed the E&Y team that for years audited the city's Housing Development Corporation when it was run by Russell Harding, who pled guilty in 2005 to looting it for $400,000. In submissions to the DOE, Milkosky described himself as "the partner in charge of all services rendered" to the city's HDC, though he tells the Voice he didn't "recall" if he ever talked to Harding during the three years that he audited the small agency while Harding ran it."

Jeez, even a blind guy could have seen what good old Russell was up to-that is, if he were inclined to do so: "An HDC spokeswoman says that Milkosky was "the lead partner" on the contract during the Harding years, and that E&Y was awarded the contract shortly after Harding became president. Since Harding's release from federal prison, he has been writing his own blog, Rudy Veritas (he was a Rudy Giuliani appointee) and has noted that E&Y auditors were in his office for two months every year and that "all of my records were there for E&Y to see."

Like Sargent Schultz in Hogan's Heroes Milkosky, "Sees nothsing!" But then again, maybe he's really being paid to look the other way; can anyone say Enron? And Barret also uncovers the Milkosky role in the pay for pay regime across the river in the hamlet of Hoboken-that citadel of moral probity: "One Hoboken councilman, Michael Russo, tells the Voice that he had "no confidence" in E&Y and that "when we had the opportunity to change" auditors in 2007, "we did it." Russo, whose father was once Hoboken's mayor and also went to jail, says E&Y was "just going through the motions" and that the council "had many issues with our financial statements at that point, and we've uncovered many issues since."

But the meat of the Barrett accusation relates to the shoddiness of the Milkosky rebuttal: "Milkosky explained to the Voice that Thompson "looked at the information behind the transcripts" of the graduates and "we didn't." The comptroller "went beyond things that we checked" because "we weren't asked to check that," he said. Yet the June 22 letter he wrote at DOE's request left the impression that E&Y was challenging Thompson's findings, noting that it doesn't "call into question any of the conclusions" expressed in the firm's report, "including but not limited to our overall conclusion that the graduation rate calculation was accurate." The key word in Milkosky's letter is "calculation," which means simply that all E&Y did was validate DOE's numbers, not the probity of the graduation controls, and that Thompson did nothing to contradict the numbers either."

Gee whiz, any book keeper could have signed off on the numbers; but why pay these guys so much money-to rubber stamp the DOE's numbers? And then there is the way in which the DOE awarded its bid-dramatizing just how unaccountable these shifty dudes are: "E&Y's requirements contract with DOE has averaged $2 million a year and, under it, the department requests that they perform an assortment of auditing functions ("I'm sure we charged them for a couple of hours" to review the Thompson audit, said Milkosky). It was renewed for another four years in 2007, despite the fact that the only other bidder, KPMG, submitted a bid at less than half E&Y's price (E&Y bid $1.2 million for the core audit of 40 schools and KPMG bid $500,000). E&Y "showed a greater understanding and willingness to adapt to the preferences and needs" of DOE, concluded an evaluation report authorizing the contract."

We're sure that E&Y are, without doubt, adaptable; although politically malleable is probably a better term. Once again, as the Times and Barrett underscore, you simply can't trust this mayoral regime to accurately evaluate the educational achievements of our school kids. In essence, it is doing a number on us all.