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Daily Howler: Thanks to Virginia's outright fraud, some schools are better than perfect
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WILL THE REAL MAURY SCHOOL PLEASE STAND UP! Thanks to Virginia’s outright fraud, some schools are better than perfect: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 9, 2006

OUR SERIES ON VIRGINIA TEST SCORES: We’re posting early today for a reason. We may add segments this afternoon.

Special report: Will the real Maury School please stand up!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Read each part of our current series”

Part 1: Here at the Howler, we like Jay Mathews. But this time, Jay just has it wrong. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/06.

Part 2: Jay misstates Virginia’s procedure—a procedure which adds up to fraud. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/06.

PART 3—YES VIRGINIA, YOU’RE BETTER THAN PERFECT: An e-mailer begged—but we were already on it. How bizarre was Virginia willing to be its effort to jack up its test scores? As we’ve seen, the state devised an absurd procedure in which fourth-grade kids took its third-grade tests and—when they passed these third-grade tests—got added to the total of third-grade kids who had passed. Example: At Maury Elementary in Alexandria, Virginia, only 5 out of 19 third-grade students passed the state reading test last spring—but 12 fourth-graders passed this same third-grade test, and so the state then told the world that 17 out of 19 third-graders had passed! (Amazing but true. And yes, there’s a word for this conduct—it’s outright “fraud.”) But wait a minute! Didn’t that mean that a school like Maury could even—yes, indeed, it’s actually true! Believe it or not, here is what the state would do when a school attained a “passing rate” which actually exceeded 100 percent. So you’ll know, “Remediation Recovery students” are fourth-grade kids taking third-grade tests (or sixth-grade kids taking fifth-grade tests). Another good word would be “ringers:”
Remediation Recovery students will be included in the unadjusted number of students who passed, but not in the number of students tested, hence the term Recovery Bonus. Said another way, passing Remediation Recovery students are added to the numerator, but not to the denominator. What this means is that a passing percentage exceeding 100 percent is possible. (Note: while this overview reports percentages more than 100 percent, the State caps pass rates at 100 percent).
“Hence the term Recovery Bonus!” Readers, let’s call it “found poetry.” Meanwhile, isn’t this big of the state of Virginia? If one of its schools—helped along by this scheme—achieves “a passing percentage exceeding 100 percent,” the state will “cap” it at 100! Of course, everyone gains from this slick move. The school doesn’t get a fat, swollen head—and Virginia’s citizens have no way to know that their state has pulled off a big swindle.

Yep! Thanks to the “Recovery Bonus,” a school’s “passing rate” can go over 100! In this, we see the massive clowning which has transpired for the past five years. (According to the materials we were sent, this procedure took effect in 2001. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/06 for the full text of the materials we were sent explaining this process.)

Thanks to the “Recovery Bonus,” a school’s passing rate can go over 100. We’re vaguely reminded of the lovely Lake Wobegon, where “the children are all above average”—and we’re reminded of the cheating scandal of the 1980s which bore the lake’s famous name. But before we briefly revisit that episode, it’s time to answer a few basic questions. When we saw Maury praised on the Post’s front page, why did we check to see if the school’s data really made sense? And, after that, a larger question: Why do fake test scores really matter?

Why did we check Maury’s scores? There was Maury, at the top of page one, headlined as “a study in pride, progress.” Why did we check Maury’s “school report card” to see if the data made sense?

Simple! As we have explained in the past, we’ve seen schools and school systems fake test scores for the better part of four decades. Presumably, sometimes high test scores are just high test scores. But no, we don’t believe these “schools that work” stories when they adorn a big paper’s front page. Newspapers love these pleasing tales, especially when they involve low-income schools. As a result, they constantly approach these pleasing tales without a whiff of normal skepticism.

On Tuesday, we offered a frame about ourselves and Jay Mathews; we said that we tend to approach these stories from two different perspectives. Here’s that passage from Jay’s follow-up report about Maury—the passage in which he described an early journalistic experience:

MATHEWS (2/28/06): Since I wandered into Garfield High School 23 years ago and found that that inner city Los Angeles school was outperforming all but four high schools in the country in Advanced Placement test participation, and beating the national passing rate on the tests, I have been convinced that the majority of Americans are wrong to think kids from low-income backgrounds cannot be expected to achieve at high levels. And this column, as regular readers know, has been full of other examples of that, because it is No 1 on my list of obsessions.
Jay says “the majority of Americans are wrong to think kids from low-income backgrounds cannot be expected to achieve at high levels.” We don’t know what most Americans think, but Jay is wrong to let his own beliefs rob him of normal journalistic skepticism. The contradictory data about Maury’s achievement were right there, in the public records, for all to see. But Jay apparently didn’t review the basic Maury data. Result? Maury was placed at the top of page one, praised as a study in progress, although only 27 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state reading test. (Statewide, 77 percent of third-grade kids passed.) Can you say “soft bigotry of low expectations?” This was a massive error—a massive failure of journalism.

Why do stories about fake test scores matter? Let’s assume that we all were misled about achievement levels at Maury. Why do stories like this really matter? After all, the primary question is this: How can we improve achievement in low-income schools like Maury? Let’s assume that the state misled us this time. Why does it matter so much?

We’ve pursued these stories since the early 1970s because they do matter, a very great deal. They keep us from having a real discussion about the plight of low-income schools—and they keep us from seeing the actual problems that tend to obtain in such settings. These stories make us feel very good—and they make the challenge of improving low-income schools sound extremely easy. What does it take to fix low-income schools? In Jay’s report, we got a Familiar Story: An energetic new principal came to the school and in one year, its test scores had soared. But test scores hadn’t soared at Maury; as we’ve noted, they had actually dropped at the third-grade level. (Last spring, only two grade levels were tested—third and fifth.) Sorry, but it simply isn’t this easy—and it never will be. But stories like this seem to say it is easy—and, subliminally, they tell middle-class readers that they don’t have to worry or think all that much about the plight of low-income schools. Success is right around the corner, these stories seem to say. Changing these schools is quite easy.

And yes—this familiar, bogus tale has been a hit for at least forty years.

But the problem goes beyond this. Stories like this disguise the real problems which tend to prevail in low-income schools. What really goes on in low-income schools; what really creates the “failure to thrive” that the state of Virginia was so anxious to hide? In our last series, “Farewell, Gabriela,” we saw it happening on the high school level. What really happens is this: Low-income kids are constantly asked to do things for which they lack the prerequisites. They’re handed textbooks they simply can’t read. They’re asked to keep up with instructional programs for which they lack the prerequisite skills. (As we saw through Gabriela: On the high school level, they’re required to take Algebra 1—although they actually need fourth-grade review.) But uh-oh! When Jay presents a story like this, he takes us a thousand miles from these realities. He makes it sound like the kids in these schools are ready right now “to achieve at high levels.” Manifestly, at Maury, they were not.

These stories can mislead us about a school’s passing rates—but they also mislead us about these schools’ problems. Remember the general profile of many children at Maury, as described in that latest new study:

CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
Sorry, but you can’t wish that away in one magic year by bringing in an energetic new principal. (That’s why the state had to fake Maury’s scores.) You have to “sit in those little chairs,” to quote Jonathan Kozol; you have to sit there and see where these kids really are. And most likely, what you will see won’t be heartening (as Kozol makes clear in many parts of his new, undiscussed book, The Shame of the Nation). Indeed, let’s adapt something we said just this Monday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/6/06). On Monday, we were talking about DC’s schools. But here are the questions we’d be inclined to ask about a low-income school like Maury:
OUR QUESTIONS FOR MAURY: What happens to low-income Maury kids on Day One of kindergarten? If they come to school lacking readiness skills, is that lack assessed and addressed? Or are they pushed ahead through more standard development arcs—through standard programs devised with reference to the skills that are typical in middle-class children? (“Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills.”) And what happens to kids on Day One of first grade? If they aren’t ready for standard reading instruction, do they get it pushed at them anyway? (As Gabriela got pushed into Algebra 1 before she was actually ready.) And what happens to kids in the fourth and fifth grades, kids who may be years below grade level? (“By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.”) Are they given a range of textbooks and supplementary materials they can actually read and learn from? Or are they handed books they can’t read? Or perhaps, handed no books at all?
Those are the questions we’d ask about Maury. But familiar stories like the Post report take us to an Era of Magical Thinking. An energetic new principal can fix things in one year! And the kids can achieve at high levels!

Well, thanks to the fraudulent conduct of the state of Virginia, kids really can “achieve at high levels!” Amazingly enough, more than 100 percent can pass—although the state will “cap” the rate at 100! In the process, the public can simply go straight to hell, and so can the interests of low-income students—the kids the state was lying about when it promoted those fraudulent test scores. These scripted stories teach readers to dream—and tell readers that they can stop worrying about Maury’s low-income children.

TOMORROW—PART 4: “Low-income kids can achieve at high levels.” Kozol hates this pleasing claim too.