Part 4—Some things never change: Here at THE HOWLER, we normally take the side of American public school teachers. In recent years, attacks on teachers have routinely been dumb and unfair.
These attacks have also been grossly misleading for the American public.
That said, no individual or group is perfect. With that in mind, we had some teacher-unfriendly reactions to last Sunday’s front-page report, in which the Washington Post bungled a familiar topic again.
The report concerned the “huge gains” a Virginia public school recorded on last year’s statewide tests, at least on the third-grade level. Our first teacher-unfriendly reaction concerned the extensive “test prep” lessons which produced those “huge gains,” at least according to the young journalists at the Washington Post.
Did test prep lessons produce those “huge gains?” We have no idea. But as we read the Post’s report, we were struck by the willfulness of this school’s third-grade teachers.
This is why we say that:
In the spring of 2013, third grade students at the school didn’t do especially well on the statewide tests (the SOLs). According to the Post, fewer than half of the school’s third-graders received passing scores in reading and math.
According to the Post, this represented a large drop in passing rates from previous years. As a result, third-grade teachers at the school jumped to conclusions about the state tests, then swung into action.
Based on their subjective judgment, the third-grade teachers decided that the passing rates didn’t represent how much their students actually knew. They decided to institute “test prep” lessons to help their new group of third-graders score better in the spring of 2014.
When teachers start free-lancing in such ways, standardization is gone. Third-grade students are being prepared for the statewide tests in ways that fourth-grade students are not. Kids at School A are being prepared in ways that their friends at School B are not.
Standardization is shot when irate teachers at each school devise their own extensive test prep. Beyond that, when passing rates “soar” after test prep is given, there’s no way to know why student performance improved from the previous year.
Did the new students really know more? Or was it just the test prep talking? In theory, if the state of Virginia runs standardized tests, the state should also prescribe a form of standardized test prep. When teachers take the law in their own hands, the basic purpose of testing is shot.
This brings us to our second teacher-unfriendly thought. This thought concerns the possibility that some form of cheating could have produced those “huge gains.”
Right at the start of their lengthy piece, the kid reporters at the Post directly say that the test prep lessons produced the “huge gains” in passing rates. (“Teaching to the test had remarkable results...”)
There’s no way the scribes can know that’s true. But that is what they asserted.
In the course of an 1800-word piece, the kid reporters never considered a second possible explanation for the “huge gain” in passing rates—the possibility that somebody cheated at the school in question.
To state the obvious, this is always a possibility when test scores “soar” at some struggling school. But newspapers like the Washington Post always know that they must never consider the possibility.
Did somebody cheat at this school? Did someone provide students with answers to test questions? With early access to test questions? Did someone change wrong answers to right on students’ answer sheets?
We have no idea if anything like that happened! But that type of conduct has occurred quite widely in Washington and in Atlanta in recent years, and those scandals received humongous attention in the national press.
Yes, Virginia! “Huge gains” in passing rates sometimes result from cheating! In recent years, this has been major national news—but so what?
Even in the wake of this unpleasant history, the Washington Post has now discussed a school which achieved “huge gains” without inquiring, at any point, about this possible explanation for the “soaring” test scores. But then, the Post is devoted to seeing no evil in this particular area—has been for a long time.
Did somebody cheat at this school at some point? We have no idea! But let’s discuss a scoring pattern which would cause any serious, competent journalist to ask that obvious question:
The Washington Post included two graphics as part of its lengthy, front-page report. The first graphic bears this imprecise title: AVERAGE PASSING RATES FOR ALL FOUR SOL SUBJECTS.
Alas! As we noted yesterday, it isn’t clear if the graphic shows average passing rates for third-graders at the school or for tested students in all grades. Whichever it is, a pattern on display in that graphic would have caused a competent journalist to ask some basic questions.
How odd! The school’s student population is “largely poor and Hispanic,” the Post observes at one point. The school is described as “a landing pad for young immigrants who speak little or no English.”
In most instances, deserving kids who face those challenges won’t score as well on standardized tests as Americans kids on the whole. But according to the Post graphic, passing rates at this school matched statewide passing rates in the spring of 2011 and the spring of 2012.
For a school which was largely poor and Hispanic, those were unusual test scores! But uh-oh! In the spring of 2013, a substantial drop-off occurs.
In reaction to that drop, the test prep lessons were instituted on the third-grade level. According to the Post, this produced a rise in third-grade scores in the spring of 2014.
According to that first graphic, passing rates were all over the place at this school during the years in question. Provisionally, this is the way a cynic—or a competent journalist—would interpret that scoring pattern:
Conceivably, someone was cheating on the tests in 2011 and 2012! This resulted in surprisingly high passing rates, considering the challenges facing the student population.
(If this did happen, classroom teachers wouldn’t necessarily have known. In some cheating scandals, administrators doctor students’ answer sheets. No one else knows.)
We continue now with our highly provisional story:
Conceivably, someone cheated on the tests in 2011 and 2012. But then, a big hubbub blew up in the DC area with the Washington, DC cheating scandal—and with the revelation that answer sheets can be scanned for unusual erasure patterns. As a result, no cheating occurred in the spring of 2013—and test scores dropped to a more expected level.
Shocked by the low passing rates, teachers devised test prep.
Did any such thing occur at this school? We have no idea. That said, we aren’t making an accusation about anyone at the school. We’re making a claim about unending decades of incompetence at the Washington Post.
Our claim goes something like this:
The Washington Post’s front-page report was basically incompetent, in a very familiar way.
Especially in the wake of the DC and Atlanta scandals, no competent newspaper can investigate “huge gains” in some school’s test scores without considering the possibility that cheating could have occurred.
Cheating is always possible! But so what? Not a word about this obvious fact darkens the Post report.
The Washington Post sent a couple of kids to report on this public school’s “huge gains.” Those kids behaved in exactly the way Post reporters have always behaved when discussing such matters.
Goods God! Teachers and principals have been cheating on standardized tests for a very long time! We first approached the Baltimore Sun about outright cheating at a Baltimore school in the early 1970s. We wrote op-ed columns on this topic for the Sun in the 1980s.
(Cheating took many forms as the drive for “accountability” grew. In the early 1980s, a very high official at one of the major standardized tests told us a remarkable story. He said his company had come to believe that their principal competitor, to whom they were losing market share, was faking its norms in such a way as to produce artificially high scores.)
(At the time, many school systems were switching from the one test battery to the other, and everyone knew the reason. School districts tended to get better scores with the second test battery. According to our own Deep Throat, those higher scores resulted from fraudulent norms. We don’t know if that suspicion was accurate.)
(At this same time, this same person told us that answer sheets could be electronically scanned to search for unusual erasure patterns. Even then, some school districts were paying a fee to search for that type of cheating.)
Various kinds of cheating have been happening for a long time. This has sometimes included cheating by people inside schools. Newspapers like the Washington Post have always feigned ignorance of this fact.
No matter how many times a scandal blows up—no matter how many different types of cheating emerge—newspapers like the Washington Post continue to imagine no evil. They send inexperienced reporters out to schools, where they pretend to examine “huge gains.” These unprepared youngsters return to their desks to type up piddle like this:
BALINGIT AND SHAPIRO (1/11/15): A grim picture of academic performance was emerging at Carlin Springs Elementary. Fewer than half of the school’s third-graders had passed the reading and math portions of the Virginia Standards of Learning exam, and numbers for history and science weren’t much better.Alas! By paragraph 5, the Post’s reporters had made an assertion they can’t possibly know to be true.
Teachers pored over the data, dumbfounded.
“To get information like that back can be like a shock to your system,” said Mary Clare Moller, a literacy teacher at the Arlington, Va., school, reflecting on test results that came in after the 2012-2013 school year. “You’re just thinking, like, ‘But I taught this information. I don’t understand why the kids didn’t get it.’ ”
Moller and other third-grade teachers devised a strategy for the following fall: They led six weeks of daily test preparation lessons, tracked students’ progress with a new computer program and provided extra tutoring for students who seemed at risk of missing the mark.
Teaching to the test had remarkable results: While the rest of the school continued to flounder under Virginia’s tougher testing standards, Carlin Springs’ third-graders saw double-digit gains across the board, with passage rates between 70 percent and 79 percent in every subject.
Did test prep lessons produce the “huge gains” at this school? Did “teaching to the test” really produce “remarkable results?”
It’s possible, but it isn’t obvious! Indeed, deep in their lengthy report, the young reporters even quote a state official saying this:
BALINGIT AND SHAPIRO: Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, countered the criticism that the test does not accurately assess students’ knowledge, and he said test preparation can only really help “on the margins.”Uh-oh! According to Pyle, test prep lessons “can only really help ‘on the margins.’”
“We want the kids to be comfortable with the test, but we don’t want instruction to be test prep,” he said. “If students are taught to read and the kids are reading at grade level...then the students are going to do well on the test.”
If Pyle is right, then something else might explain the way these passing rates “soared.” But so what? The youngsters quoted Pyle, then hurried away from what he said. This comment didn’t make them ask if something other than test prep lessons had produced those “remarkable results.”
How bad is the Washington Post when it comes to matters of this type? Let’s recall the paper’s gigantic fail in 2006.
In February 2006, a report atop the Post’s front page hailed a Virginia elementary school which was headlined as “A Study in Pride, Progress; Alexandria School Works Hard to Erase Academic Blot.”
At the very top of page one, Jay Mathews praised the local school for its remarkable score gains. Because we’d learned, down through the decades, not to trust reports of this type, we nosed around inside the school’s test data.
Good God! We quickly saw that the various data were strangely contradictory. Eventually, we uncovered a statewide scam which was inflating passing rates all over the state of Virginia.
How badly had the Post been taken? In fact, that local school which was praised on page one had the second lowest reading scores in the whole state of Virginia! The scam which infested the state’s test scores had misled the Post that badly.
We pursued this topic for several months, as you can see in our archives. Eventually, the chairman of the state school board acknowledged to us that a giant breakdown had occurred within the state’s reporting system. This ridiculous scam had inflated passing rates at virtually every school in the state. But the Washington Post never reported this scandal to its readers.
This week, a couple of kids who don’t know schools engaged in similar conduct. What happened at that local school to produce these latest “huge gains?” We don’t have the slightest idea. Nor do the Post’s reporters.
We do know a thing or two about journalistic fails. This past Sunday, readers of the Washington Post were handed an imitation of journalism on the paper’s front page. And alas! When we discuss low-income schools in such casual ways, we show how little we actually care about the important lives of the beautiful children who work and play within their walls.
What actually happened at the latest school with the latest huge gains? In truth, the Washington Post doesn’t know and doesn’t much seem to care. Meanwhile, the liberal world has tolerated this journalism every step of the way.
We liberals! We care about poor kids when they get shot. Otherwise, they can go hang.