USA Today investigates DC Public Schools’ standardized testing anomalies

USA Today has published a major investigative article on standardized testing anomalies at District of Columbia public schools, many of which were praised (and financially rewarded) by former chancellor Michelle Rhee.

In just two years, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from a school deemed in need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its “shining stars.”

Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes’ students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.

Because of the remarkable turnaround, the U.S. Department of Education named the school in northeast Washington a National Blue Ribbon School. Noyes was one of 264 public schools nationwide given that award in 2009.

USA Today goes on to explain that the paper launched in investigation of  DC Public Schools because of the national attention DCPS has received during and after the tenure of Chancellor Rhee; indeed, the paper reports, DCPS received tens of millions of dollars in federal funding based on its purported improvements in test scores. But there was a problem:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones…

Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That’s more than half of D.C. schools.

Erasures are detected by the same electronic scanners that CTB/McGraw-Hill, D.C.’s testing company, uses to score the tests. When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student.

In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill…

On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

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