Another credulous article on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law appears today in the Washington Post. As someone who knows many teachers who have had experience with similar stupid laws in Virginia, and the history of the Bush administration pushing for these kinds of laws based on the “Texas Education Miracle”, I’m far more skeptical about any real gains in learning as a result of standardized testing.
But first, you have to understand what Bush, and his education secretary Rod Paige, really did as governor of Texas for education (take a guess), and how standardized testing is a cynical political tool.
First of all, the “miracle” in Texas was that no investigative reporters bothered to actually figure out until Bush was already in the White House was that they improved drop out rates by fudging the stats.
All in all, 463 kids left Sharpstown High School that year, for a variety of reasons. The school reported zero dropouts, but dozens of the students did just that. School officials hid that fact by classifying, or coding, them as leaving for acceptable reasons: transferring to another school, or returning to their native country.
“That’s how you get to zero dropouts. By assigning codes that say, ‘Well, this student, you know, went to another school. He did this or that.’ And basically, all 463 students disappeared. And the school reported zero dropouts for the year,” says Kimball. “They were not counted as dropouts, so the school had an outstanding record.”
Sharpstown High wasn’t the only “outstanding” school. The Houston school district reported a citywide dropout rate of 1.5 percent. But educators and experts 60 Minutes checked with put Houston’s true dropout rate somewhere between 25 and 50 percent.
And it’s true, statewide to this day Texas reports that it has a dropout rate in the single digits. However, independent analyses, like those by the Manhattan Institute (a right-wing think tank) show that the actual drop out rates are closer to 40%!(1) One major way the Bush administrations fudged the stats was by changing the definition of the metric. They counted drop outs as those entering the 12th grade who failed to graduate, whereas the real metric of drop out rates is how many kids enter high school and fail to graduate. That combined with creative accounting of dropouts by the schools and it becomes obvious the “mirace” is a big lie.
WaPo has a similar article on the fudged stats. Only this is how the schools in Houston under Bush and Paige were able to fudge test scores:
They note that the Texas test is administered in the sophomore year. Austin High, like many other Houston schools, routinely holds students back in the ninth grade under a policy that effectively allows school administrators to exclude weaker students from the 10th-grade test results. In 2001, for example, there were 1,160 students in the ninth grade and 281 in the 10th grade.
Perla Arredondo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, took ninth grade three times before being moved up to 11th grade. By then, she was so discouraged she dropped out of Austin High, along with many of her friends. She regrets her decision, after discovering she needs a high school diploma even for jobs such as secretary or cashier.
“I felt school was a waste of time because I had to go over the same thing over and over again and wasn’t moving up,” she said.
Because Arredondo skipped 10th grade, she was never included in Austin High’s accountability statistics. According to Robert Kimball, a former Sharpstown High assistant principal who provided KHOU with much of its information, that is common practice in Houston. “The secret of doing well in the 10th-grade tests is not to let the problem kids get to the 10th grade,” he said.
This is a far more general problem and something people don’t get about “accountability” measures. When you base accountability on metrics – it doesn’t matter what the field is – people will fudge the results to get ahead. If you try to hold police accountable based on crime statistics, they will charge people with more minor offenses to make it appear as if violent crime is down. If you try to hold doctors accountable based on metrics culled from their records they will fudge to make their patients look healthier (don’t read the authors conclusions – they’re nuts – look at the data). Careless use of measures of accountability are simply not effective means of ensuring you are getting what you want out of people, because people faced with a difficult student population, or criminal population, or patient population, will find it easier to fudge the stats than fix the problem. Additionally, when you don’t actually give them any money to fix the problem, they have a dilemma, fudge the stats or lose your school and/or job. It’s not usually outright dishonesty either, people have many implicit biases that really make it difficult not to try to manipulate systems to make themselves look better. In science, it’s something you have to be constantly vigilant about, it’s why trials of drugs are double-blinded, it’s why we don’t believe things until they’re repeated multiple times, it’s why you take steps to constantly try to eliminate bias from your experiments. It’s not because people are fundamentally dishonest, but they are biased, often in very predictable ways, and bias can make people affect results without their even realizing it – or thinking they’re doing anything wrong. I think that’s what is going on here.
How did the schools fudge the data for NCLB? Well, it’s an open secret that the state tests that ensure their schools continually get federal funding were initially challenging tests – but when all the kids failed they dumbed down the tests. Independent testing has consistently shown that the state tests are routinely failing to actually assess student performance. They’re fudging the stats.
The worst aspect of all of this testing and accountability crap, is that it give the implementor a false appearance of accomplishment. It goes like this. The politician says the schools need accountability so they implement a standardized testing scheme. The first year, the students do terribly, the politician can claim proof of a problem (and immediately blame their predecessor). Then the next year, the schools under pressure to maintain funding, or in the case of NCLB, the states, dumb down the tests or spend the whole year teaching to it (as they did here in Virginia) and suddenly test scores are way up. The implementing politician can now claim success! In one year test scores are up 40% 50% etc., they must be a great leader! This is exactly what happened in Texas, this is exactly what happened here in Virginia, and now, it’s happened nation-wide. Expect Bush to declare “mission accomplished” on education sometime soon, even though it’s all just a scam.
This is the scam that helped propel Bush to the white house as an educational reformer. In reality it’s just more Enron-based policy from this incompetent administration. It’s about appearances, not real success. And the worse part of it, is the cynical use of the nation’s children to make it appear as though politicians have reformed education, when all they’ve done is swept it under the rug.
1. Greene, J.P., High School Graduation Rates in the United States, November 2001(Revised April 2002), The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.