Monday, August 02, 2010

Testing Credulity

Well, now that the scores are in, some of the former cheerleaders for the Bloomberg educational miracle are having some second thoughts. Here's the NY Daily News editorial on the drastic score come down: "The state Education Department defrauded parents and students. In standardized testing, officials count up how many answers a kid gets right and translate the number into a scale score. They deem a certain scale score to be the passing grade. New York chose 650. Why? Who knows? Children who hit the mark were told they were proficient. Across the state, from 2006 through 2009, an increasing number of students reached the proficient benchmark as their scale scores rose, with the city's children making the biggest gains. They did better on the tests - a huge plus - but many were not proficient because the 650 passing mark was too low. In effect, they had been lied to."

Well, yes, the kids and their parents have been lied to. But who else has been playing Pinocchio? You'd never find out from the News' editorial, because in the entire 586 word treatise, there isn't a single mention of the man who spent millions in his re-election campaign-in fact it was one of the campaign's linchpins-trying to convince voters to give him a questionable third term because of his incredible educational success. Success, that we now find out, was nothing but a Potemkin Village.

The NY Time describes the shock to the system caused by the revised standards: "At some schools, the drop was breathtaking. At Public School 85 in the Bronx, known as the Great Expectations School, there was a literal reversal in fortune, with proficiency on the third-grade math test flipping from 81 percent to 18 percent. At the main campus of the Harlem Promise Academy, one of the city’s top-ranked charter schools, proficiency in third-grade math dropped from 100 percent to 56 percent."

Incredibly, the NY Post's Michael Goodwin gives Bloomberg a shout out because of his forthright response to the lower test results: "Debates over test scores in New York schools often turn into propaganda wars, with everything from union contracts to racial disparities thrown into the mix. Deciphering results often becomes a contest of competing spins. That's why it was so refreshing to hear Mayor Bloomberg's insightful reaction to the tough new state standards, which sharply reduced the number of city students scoring passing grades."

Refreshing? Really Michael, the mayor's response is a conscious effort to play a time old New York shell game-keep moving those shells so that the bystanders can't figure out where the pea is: "While 69 percent were proficient in English last year, only 42 percent are this year. In math, the number fell from 82 percent to 54 percent. Yet the mayor, who has often hailed past results, was not defensive. He focused instead on why education matters, and why all New Yorkers should embrace the higher standards. "I've always believed that the best way to improve student achievement is to demand higher results by making the tests harder and demanding better scores, because we should never doubt our children's ability to rise to any challenge," he said in little-noted remarks that deserve to be quoted at length."

Whoa there, hold up a second, Goodwin has cleverly elided the crux of this deception by hiding it in plain site- "Yet the mayor, who has often hailed past result..." It's a bit more than that, we're afraid; and it was Bloomberg who not only hailed these past fraudulent results, but who also paid teachers and administrators unearned bonuses on what has turned out to be a total deception. But it's not just that (can we get a dayenu?)

The harsher reality is that Bloomberg, Klein, and the editorialists at the News and the Post based their campaign for continued mayoral control on the basis of this test scam-and we can't go back to get that well deserved do-over, can we? But leave it to the more forthright Diane Ravitch to lay out the more honest take on this whole sad affair.

Writing in yesterday's NY Daily News (and credit the paper for printing her piece), Ravitch calls a lot of spades, spades: "When the scores were released, there was a sound of bursting bubbles across the state. What once were miracles turned into mirages. Since 2005, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have trumpeted historic gains. But after the state's adjustment, the pass rate on the state reading test among city students fell from an impressive 68.8% to an unimpressive 42.4%, and from an astonishing 81.8% to a disappointing 54% in mathematics. Overnight, the city's historic gains disappeared. Now, look at the achievement gap between the performance of white students and that of minorities. Last year, black students were 22 points behind white students in passing the state English exam. This year - after the state corrected its scoring - the gap increased to 30.4 points. In math, the gap grew even more. Black students were 17 points behind whites last year. Now they've fallen 30 points behind."

Bubbles bursting, miracles into mirages-with Bloomberg trying, unsuccessfully in our view, to artfully change the subject. And Ravitch isn't finished: "Among other bubbles that popped were the city's school report cards, which based 85% of their grades on the state's test scores, mostly on gains on the test now proven to be vastly overstated. Some schools were given an A for "progress" on dumbed-down tests, and others were closed because they didn't make the grade. But the measure was a deeply flawed instrument. The hundreds of millions of dollars that the city has spent on test preparation turned out to be a bad investment. Students were learning test-taking skills, not truly learning reading or mathematics. As a result of the fiasco, we now know that the bonuses of more than $30 million handed out last year to teachers in schools that made "gains" on the state tests were a waste of precious money."

But for the News, in its editorial, the glass remains at least half full: "Children have made demonstrable gains over the past five years. Look at the scale scores, the most direct measure of how well kids did on the tests based on the questions they got right. From 2006 to 2009, scale scores among city kids rose 23 points in math and 13 points in English. Both held firm in 2010. Minorities made the biggest gains, narrowing the achievement gap with whites. Black students rose 25 points in math; whites rose 19. Blacks and Latinos picked up 14 points in English; white children, five. The growth lifted the city's performance almost to that of schools statewide."

But that half full rose colored glass-discolored as it is by outright fraud and the deceptions purveyed from it-did not come cheap; something that the News fails to mention. In the term of the mayor, the DOE's budget has doubled to over $21 billion. So, with benefits diminished by both costs and less than stellar test scores, was the hoo ha over mayoral control justified? Mightn't we have achieved the same results under the old regime if we gave it an extra $10 billion or so?

So, given the flim flamming that has gone on-from the top of the state's educational bureaucracy to the bottom of the inflated Tweed payroll-we'll refrain from any shout outs; except for those like Ravitch, Sol Stern, Andy Wolf and Juan Gonzales (as well as other less publicized critics) who saw through this charade from jump street.

We'll give Ravitch a well deserved last word: "Now we know that achievement in the city and state did not grow by historic proportions, as officials claimed. The way to avoid similar messes in the future is to use test scores for information and diagnosis, not for rewards and punishments. Two questions remain: Will Bloomberg and Klein accept this new reality or will they continue to deny the plain facts and refuse to be held accountable? And will the state education department find and fire the bureaucrats and private contractors responsible for this scandal? Unfortunately, the prospects for genuine accountability by the city and state are not promising."