All Around the Interwebs

Check out my new piece at Slate, which puts the Atlanta standardized test cheating scandal in some historical perspecitve. Sadly, this is not an isolated case:

In the late 1980s, states began to experiment with offering schools financial awards for improving test scores. As the local media filled with optimistic stories about rising scores, a West Virginia doctor named John Cannell wondered why so many of his teenage patients complained of feeling lost at school. In 1988, Cannell published a classic research paper (PDF) reporting that most school districts in all 50 states boasted average test scores higher than their state's average—a statistical impossibility if the districts had been honest about performance. In his indispensible 2008 book Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, Harvard psychometrician Daniel Koretz writes, "This phenomenon quickly became known as the 'Lake Wobegon effect,' after Garrison Keillor's mythical town where 'all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.' "

A few years later, Houston's superintendent, Rod Paige, gained fame as the force behind the "Texas Miracle," a period of rapidly rising test scores and high school graduation rates. Paige offered teachers and principals merit pay attached to such metrics. In 2003, it was discovered that widespread cheating had taken place throughout the city, with failing students encouraged to stay home on test days. In 1999 in New York City, 32 schools, dozens of teachers, and two principals were embroiled in a similar scandal.

And over at The Nation I review Rupert Murdoch's interest in American education reform and detail his business relationship with former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who is handing crisis management for the beleaguered News Corp. 

Last November, shortly after hiring Klein, News Corp. acquiredWireless Generation, an education technology firm that had worked closely with Klein during his tenure as chancellor on two projects: ARIS, a controversial (and buggy) data system that warehouses students’ standardized test scores and demographic profiles; and School of One, a more radical attempt to use technology to personalize instruction, reorganize classrooms, and reduce the size of the teaching force.

The acquisition put Klein, who was set to supervise Wireless Generation, in an awkward position vis a vis city ethics regulations. 

One thought on “All Around the Interwebs

  1. Robert Rothman

    I wrote a lot about John Cannell when he came out with his finding, and while he claimed that the fact that all states were reporting students above average was the result of cheating (A 60 Minutes piece on him was entitled “Teacher is a Cheater”), that is not true. First, the above average finding is not a “statistical impossibility.” This is kind of technical, but here goes: scores norm-referenced tests, which he looked at, are based on the results of a “norm group,” a sample of students who take the test when it comes out. Subsequent results are compared to the results of the norm group. That is, when a test company says that a student performed in the 75th percentile, that means she did better than 75 percent of the norm group, not 75 percent of the students who took that test that year. Over time, as student performance improves, more and more students can perform better than those in the norm group; indeed, most can be “above average.” And that is what happened. The norms were old–in some cases as many as seven years–and yes, there was evidence of teaching to the test that produced higher scores. But it does not imply that anyone was cheating in the way the Atlanta teachers apparently did.
    Cannell’s study did a lot to spur the development of standards-based tests (“criterion-referenced” is the technical term), which measure students’ performance against what they are expected to learn. That’s what states use now, although some districts continue to use norm-referenced tests as well.
    I hope this is clear. I’d be happy to discuss it further. And you can read my take on Atlanta here: link to


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