Opinion
Accountability Opinion

The Secret of Success and High Test Scores

By Diane Ravitch — September 15, 2009 5 min read

Editor’s note: See author’s “P.S.” added since entry was first published.

I will have to delay a bit before I can get to the book you recommended. When I finished “Daniel Deronda,” I immediately plunged into Robert Caro’s wonderful biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” which I am enjoying very much. It is fascinating from the start as a description of the life and times of a man who did so much to redesign New York City, who was celebrated and powerful, but in the end...was the subject of a very unflattering biography by a master historian. The book gives perspective to some of the events that you describe. In the end, people in public life are judged by their real accomplishments and their integrity, not by their wealth, their power, or their press releases. The latter fade, and eventually the record speaks for itself. This is one of the reasons that I love to write history and read history, as over time phony laurels disintegrate, and the applause that is generated by flacks disappears.

I would like to engage you in one of your favorite issues, which is the use and abuse of tests. Over the past few months, as I was finishing my book, I became aware of the startling extent to which the New York State Education Department has manipulated the state test results. So, while politicians crow about their “success” in raising test scores (as if they had anything to do with students’ learning!), it turns out that the tests have been rigged in recent years to produce higher scores. The more I learned, the more I wondered if New York was on its way to becoming a national laughing-stock.

I wrote two articles about this. The first one appeared in the New York Post in August under the headline “Toughen the Tests.” The article actually was NOT a call to toughen the tests, but a call to tell the truth. I wrote it to alert our new state education commissioner, David Steiner, who assumes his position on Oct. 1, to the scandalous manipulation of test scores by the agency he will lead.

The second article was published by the New York Daily News (“Bloomberg’s Bogus Report Cards Destroy Real Progress”). There I discussed the Bloomberg administration’s zany school report cards, which this year awarded an A to 84 percent of the city’s elementary and middle schools, and a B to 13 percent more. In other words, 97 percent got an A or a B, including seven of the schools that the state says are “persistently dangerous.” Only two of 1,058 schools scored an F. The administration thinks this is progress, but even its most ardent supporters on the editorial boards of the New York Post and the New York Daily News complained about rampant grade inflation.

Oh, by the way, the school that saw the biggest drop in its overall score was the Harlem Promise Academy Charter School, the school that David Brooks of The New York Times held up as a national model, claiming that it had closed the achievement gap. Our blog had quite a lively exchange of letters about that school last spring. Seems it dropped from an A to a B; in the present regime of inflated scores, a B in New York City today is nothing to brag about.

I wrote these articles to draw attention to the games that the state is playing with test scores. From 2006, when the state started testing grades 3-8, to the present, the proportion of points that a student needs to advance to a higher level has steadily fallen in many grades. One of our faithful readers, Diana Senechal, conducted an experiment for gothamschools.org, in which she took two of the middle school tests and answered the questions at random; she “earned” enough points to advance to level 2. The number of students who are level 1 (the lowest) has dropped precipitously in these past three years; some very low-performing schools have few or no students in that category, not because instruction has improved, but because the state dropped the bar. The public doesn’t know this.

Over these past three years, the proportion of students who are allegedly “proficient” (level 3) leapt from 29 percent to 63 percent in Buffalo, from 30 percent to 58 percent in Syracuse, and from 57 percent to 82 percent in New York City. In 2006, a student had to earn 60 percent of the points on the state tests in math to be proficient; by 2009, the student needed to earn only 50 percent. The public does not know that the bar has been quietly lowered.

The reporters at the New York Daily News have diligently exposed the corruption of state testing by New York’s education department. For reasons that I cannot fathom, the reporters at the New York Times have completely ignored the story and continue to refer to the state scores as though they have real meaning. Perhaps the Times will take notice later this year when the NAEP results come out and the public realizes that the claims of double-digit gains are phony. Unfortunately, what the Times does and does not report matters, as some people will believe nothing unless they read it there.**

In June, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago issued a report showing that the score gains in that city (which President Obama cited when he nominated Arne Duncan as secretary of education) were mostly a result of the state’s decision to lower the cut scores on the state tests.

When states play games with cut scores and conversions from raw scores to scale scores, testing becomes a mighty scam. As Secretary Duncan said when he spoke at the National Press Club last May, we are lying to our children when we give them a false picture of their progress. When district officials know that the scores are manipulated, yet report their “gains” with a straight face, they become complicit in these lies. When public officials boast about score gains knowing that the scores are the result of game-playing, they too are complicit.

Have testing and accountability become a massive fraud against our children? Do they now serve adult interests while ignoring, indeed disregarding, the needs of children?

Diane

**P.S. The New York Times Faces Facts about State Tests: In my blog entry that was posted today (and written a few days ago), I complained that the New York Times had failed to acknowledge the dumbing-down of New York’s tests. Yesterday, Sept. 14, the Times ran an article by Javier Hernandez on that very subject (“Botched Most Answers on New York State Math Test? You Still Pass”). The article pointed out that a student could pass the 7th grade math test by getting only 44 percent of the questions right, and that the passing mark had dropped so far that students could actually pass by random guessing.

Officials at the state Education Department told the Times, apparently with a straight face, that they dropped the passing mark because they made the test “harder.” They did not explain why passing rates had soared if indeed the test was harder and comparable to previous years. Apparently the officials think that the rest of us are fools.

So the Times at last has weighed in, but has not yet given the full picture of the extent to which intensive test prep—using clone items—has corrupted the state tests, not only in math, but in ELA as well.

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