My New Column on the D.C. Testing Irregularities

This morning the Washington, D.C. Board of Education announced it would launch an investigation into widespread standardized testing irregularities in the city's public schools during the reign of Michelle Rhee. One-hundred-and-three of the district's 168 public schools submitted multiple choice answer sheets with abnormally high erasure rates, with many of those schools displaying a consistent pattern of incorrect answers being replaced by correct ones.

Statisticians told USA Today, which broke the story, that the number of erasures at some D.C. schools were so high that "the odds of winning the Powerball grand prize were better than the erasures occurring by chance."

Check out my column at The Daily Beast about the education policy lessons we can learn from this discouraging–but ultimately, not all that suprising–news:

In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.

Read the whole thing.

4 thoughts on “My New Column on the D.C. Testing Irregularities

  1. Win

    Why not mention that Rhee seems to have jump-started her career by exaggerating the improvement in test scores by her own pupils during her very brief teaching career?

  2. Rachel Levy

    Hi Dana,

    I am a big fan of your work and cite it often in my own. Especially in the current climate, it’s always reassuring to hear your voice of reason.

    In your Daily Beast column, however, you asserted that under Michelle Rhee’s leadership, “the corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracy was streamlined.” The opposite is actually the case. The central office grew and became more expensive.

    I tweeted you this info, but in case it doesn’t reach you through that medium, Bill Turque at the Washington Post reported on this here: link to And, I offered a follow up of sorts to his reporting (and your commentary) here: link to In the post are links to documents with data and analysis of DCPS central office positions and expenditures in recent years.

    I hope you will look into this and perhaps offer a correction.

    Thank so much.

  3. Dana

    Hi Rachel,thanks for your comment. When I wrote that Rhee streamlined the bureaucracy, I was making a larger point than just about the size of the central office staff, which I know went up. There were improvements in getting textbooks and other materials to kids in a timely manner, in record keeping, and in the upkeep of school buildings, so I do want to give her credit for that.


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