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TWO PROBLEMS! Parents uttered whoops of joy. But uh-oh! There were two major problems: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 17, 2006

WE CONTINUE TO PONDER: We continue to ponder our conversation with Virginia school activist Mickey VanDerwerker (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/06). She told us about her own past efforts to raise the issues we’ve been exploring (full links to our past reports below). And she described the role of Virginia pols, including former governor Mark Warner. Warner understood the problem of the fake passing rates, she said—“until he got elected.” (Passing rates have risen under Warner, VanDerwerker told us, which is, of course, quite helpful politically. Current governor Tim Kaine also understands this problem, she said.) No, the problems involved in this general matter are not the doing of just one party, whether on the state or the national level. Sometimes, Democrats are inclined to blame all such problems on President Bush because of the No Child Left Behind program. But the Virginia state program we’ve been exploring became law in the year 2000. In short, the state was looking for ways to inflate its passing rates long before Bush became president. In fact, the general problem we’ve been exploring predates Bush by three decades.

Our series began in response to a front-page report in the Washington Post—a report which appeared on February 2. Right away, a question arose: How does Virginia compute school “passing rates” on its high-stakes tests? It has been a struggle to answer that question—and to learn what actually happened at Maury. But this is a very important story, for reasons which may have been obscured by all the confusion about basic facts. Why does it matter when we’re handed inflated test scores? We’ll offer two reasons—one local, one not—in the post below.

Meanwhile, we want to produce a short, concise summary of this entire, remarkable story—a story whose implications reach far beyond the state of Virginia. What are the major events in this story? And why does this story actually matter? Starting next Tuesday, we’ll post a concise, four-part review of the whole shootin’ match. (And good news! We’ll start to address other topics on Monday. In fact, we may post on some non-educational topics tomorrow.) For some of you, this review will be pointless. But in the long run, it will serve a purpose.

According to the Post, Maury’s parents uttered “whoops of joy” when shown their school’s high passing rates. We think there were two major problems with that. Next week, we’ll summarize this whole bizarre tale. But below, we discuss those two problems.

AS PROMISED: Yesterday, we linked you to the web site of VanDerwerker’s group, PAVURSOL. VanDerwerker also linked us to a solo blogger who has explored these issues. He’s cranky—in fact, he’s The Cranky Taxpayer! To review his work on these issues, you know what to do—just click here.

WE KNOW: We know, we know—this topic gets old. As noted, new topics start Monday.

Continuing story: Yes, Virginia!

TWO PROBLEMS WITH JOY: Is all reporting of test scores local? In fact, there were two major problems with the Virginia state policy we’ve been discussing for the past few weeks (links below)—a policy which was plainly designed to inflate “passing rates” on state tests. And one of those two major problems was local. This problem involves the “whoops of joy” described in Jay Mathews’ report in the Post—a report which declared that Maury Elementary of Alexandria, Virginia was “a study in pride, progress:”

MATHEWS (2/8/06): During a recent interview in his office, [Alexandria testing director Monte] Dawson leafed through copies of the materials he sent to Richmond and noted both the high and the low spots. Perhaps the best news was Maury's jump in English scores among third- and fifth-graders. The percentage of children passing the test shot up from just over 50 percent to 92 percent.

Dawson said he knew that information had been greeted with whoops of joy at Maury
, but he tried to remain cool and objective, not unlike certain "Star Trek" characters. "Not to sound like Data or Mr. Spock," he said, "but I am not supposed to be emotionally involved.”
In this passage, Mathews discusses Maury’s high passing rate on Virginia’s “Reading/Language Arts” test. (“English” is a vague, shortened name for this test.) But what was the problem contained in this passage? The problem was this: Parents at Maury gave “whoops of joy” when they were given that high passing rate—but that passing rate was a fake, a confection. These Maury parents had been grossly misled about their own school’s performance. As he continued, Mathews quoted the grateful parent of one of the school’s third-grade students:
MATHEWS: Dawson sent the data and supporting memos to Richmond, and in mid-November, like a high school senior looking up his SAT score, he used his password to log on to the state's Web site.

Just as he had hoped, Maury had made Adequate Yearly Progress. The word spread quickly.

Mary Jo Smet, who has a third-grader at Maury, credits many people for the gains. "We have a wonderful principal...and the hardest-working teachers in the city," she said.

Disgraceful. In fact, Maury’s third-graders did extremely poorly on last spring’s Reading/Language Arts test. (From now on, we’ll just call it “reading.”) As we’ve noted, 19 third-graders were tested at Maury—and only five of these students passed. Indeed, this was the second-lowest passing rate in the whole state of Virginia! But due to the state’s absurd statistical procedures—procedures designed to inflate passing rates—these parents were told that 92 percent of Maury’s third- and fifth-graders had actually passed this key test. In third grade, their school had the second-lowest passing rate in the state. But the state of Virginia had played them for fools—and they were now cheering, and praising the principal who had so unwisely taken part in this act of deception.

In today’s post, we won’t bother explaining how this absurd statewide policy worked; we’ve hashed it out in the past several weeks, and we plan to produce that simple summary of this episode next week. But in these passages from the Mathews report, you see the first major problem with this state policy—the problem which was local. Right there in the Maury community, interested parents were grossly misled about the progress of their own school. Those “whoops of joys” came in response to absurdly inflated data. At Maury, third-grade passing rates were quite low—but the parents were told something different.

But the second big problem isn’t local; indeed, it’s a national matter. What else was wrong with Virginia’s procedures—procedures designed to inflate passing rates? This problem occurred when those high passing rates led Mathews to write his front-page report. Again, we heard the old siren song—an energetic new principal had gone to a low-income school and had turned its low passing rates right around! In his front-page report, Mathews told a familiar old tale—a tale which, in this case, was faulty:

MATHEWS: In 2003, with the federal law taking effect, Alexandria Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry tried to shake up the school...In 2004, she moved an unusually successful and energetic principal, Lucretia Jackson, into Maury and provided funds for new carpets, new tile walls, a new media center and more classroom space.

When Jackson arrived at Maury in the summer of 2004, she organized open houses for parents and put a sign out front that read, "Wanted: More Children to Love and Educate." She brought in volunteer tutors, made sure that no Maury class had more than 20 students and added hour-long after-school lessons three afternoons a week.

She patted backs, asked teachers what they needed and kept a close eye on test results.

As it turned out, those were the test results which produced “whoops of joy”—because they completely obscured the fact that Maury’s third-graders had scored so poorly. To all appearances, Mathews himself was misled by the passing rates, and he had told a familiar old story. An energetic new principal had smiled at the students, put in some new rugs—and had turned a failing school right around.

What happens when our biggest news orgs promote such stories, as they’ve done for forty years? As a nation, we get systematically misled about the state of our low-income schools. We begin to think that the task of improving such schools must be easy. And we start to read familiar remarks from know-nothing national “experts:”

MATHEWS: Maury was one of about 425—12 percent—of Virginia, Maryland and District schools on the "needs improvement" list and was a crucial test of the No Child Left Behind law. Some educators say the law, with its sanctions and labels, will force low-income, persistently low-performing schools such as Maury to improve. Others say it will drag them down and scare away families.

Stories like Maury's, said Frederick M. Hess, director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, "are the crucible. They become models of what can or cannot be done."

Who knows? Maybe Hess was quoted out of context a bit. After all, he doesn’t actually say, in this passage, what we can learn from the Maury “model.” But in the context of Mathews’ report, Hess seemed to be cheering this school’s success too. And by the way: Mathews’ report appeared more than six weeks ago. During that time, have you seen a single “national expert” raise the basic points we have raised? Have you seen a liberal journal or liberal blogger say a single word about this? How about a conservative? Or a centrist? As we’ve told you, low-income children enter “forgotten villages” when they go off to their schools each day. Our national experts slumber and snore—and draw their unearned salaries.

What a remarkable story this is! A school with its state’s second-lowest reading score is hailed as a model—“a study in pride.” Meanwhile, parents issue whoops of joy—because their state has misled them. But it isn’t just parents at local schools who get misled by stories like this. For forty years, big newspapers have rushed to publish feel-good reports about “schools that work.” And yes, these reports are often poorly researched—or just bogus. We’ll never have a meaningful discourse as long as we feed on self-delusion—as long as we all agree to be fooled by those who are happy to fool us.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Last fall, a two-hour PBS program told other stories of “schools that work.” But uh-oh! As became clear, some of those schools just weren’t “working” well either. For our first major report on this program, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/05. Our reports on those schools which seemed-to-work continued through December 2.

BASIC LINKS: On February 2, Maury Elementary hit the top of the Post’s front page. You know what to do—just click here.

We questioned this story the following week. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06, then click forward from there.

Post reporter Jay Mathews followed up on February 28. Click here to read every word.

We responded all last week. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/06, for our first installment.

At long last, the facts became clear on Wednesday. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/06.

To access Virginia’s “school report cards,” we’ll suggest that you simply click here.