Scam watch: Duke in the schools!


Duke professor [HEART] narrative: Bureaucrats love to produce phony numbers!

In recent months, many reports have emerged about the way schools and school systems have produced phony standardized test scores. (Other reports have been suppressed.) In this morning’s New York Times, we read a similar story about the way Mayor Bloomberg’s minions have apparently produced phony job-placement numbers—phony data about the numbers of people for whom city agencies found jobs.

Here we go again! Under pressure, some agencies found ways to fake their job placement numbers! If you’ve followed the test score debacles, parts of Michael Powell’s report will sound extremely familiar:
POWELL (9/27/11): “My manager would stand right over me and say: ‘Marlene, get me the damn numbers!’ ” Ms. Steele recalled. “I know what I was doing was not right, and so did he. My livelihood was on the line.”

A “Gong Show” atmosphere attended as deadlines approached. Managers applauded high producers, and handed out movie tickets, fruit baskets and Starbucks vouchers. They berated those who fell short.

“They told us to get placements by any means necessary,” said Ms. Defillo, whose account was supported by another front-line employee who requested anonymity because she works at a city-financed nonprofit organization. “That meant what? Lying. Falsifying records.”
“Caveats are in order,” Powell says. He notes that as many as 70 percent of one center’s claims may have been real!

Back to our standardized testing programs: In recent years, there have been many abuses and misjudgments in the way such programs are administered. Then too, there have been many hapless critiques of the overall utility of such testing programs. In Sunday’s Outlook section, the Washington Post offered the latest such effort from a cosmically hapless professor.

The professor in question hails from Duke. We’re not sure she made a coherent claim in her entire piece.

For ourselves, we can’t imagine running schools for low-income kids without an annual testing program. Might we make the world’s most obvious point? In the absence of annual testing, parents of these deserving kids would be get lied to all the time! Every kind of fanciful claim would be made about the amazing progress the children were making in their amazing school.

Does anyone not understand this?

At present, our testing programs are often conducted quite poorly. That doesn’t mean that we should throw annual testing away.

That said, Sunday’s piece is a masterwork of bafflegab and professorial incompetence. Does its author make a coherent claim at any point in the piece? According to Professor Cathy Davidson, Frederick J. Kelly invented multiple-choice testing in 1914—and he wouldn’t like the way his invention is being used today.

For unknown reasons, Davidson seems to think this constitutes some sort of argument. For the record, Davidson’s claims about Kelly’s views are extremely hazy, like everything else in this piece.

Davidson’s column is a primer in a key topic. It helps us appreciate the sheer incompetence displayed by professors at many major universities. That said, we were especially struck by this paragraph, which we think is truly disgusting:
DAVIDSON (9/25/11): We know that bubble tests address only a quarter of the kinds of knowledge students master in schools. For low-income kids, who have limited resources for college costs and thus little reason to think that their test scores matter to their future, the exams can seem irrelevant. For them, low scores can denote not just a possible lack of knowledge but also a possible lack of motivation to concentrate on the exam. Affluent kids, if they pay enough and take enough test-prep courses, can get higher scores.
People like Davidson never stop pimping this narrative. They pretend that low-income kids may be doing just as well as their more advantaged peers; the low-income kids just don’t try as hard on their standardized tests. Or something! As with everything else in this piece, Davidson’s claim isn’t especially clear in this passage. But the narrative on which she draws is extremely familiar.

Garbage like that has pleased beautiful minds for as long as we’ve followed these issues. But it’s ugly, stupid and utterly wrong in its suggestion. On average, low-income kids are in fact way behind; they haven’t “mastered” a whole lot of “knowledge” which the tests are somehow failing to measure. The tests aren’t wrong when they indicate that these kids are far behind. And no, it isn’t because these deserving kids don’t try hard enough when they’re tested.

It’s amazing how dumb professors can be at the most famous universities. But for people who care about low-income kids, that hoary old suggestion—The kids are alright! The tests have it wrong!—is just unbelievably ugly. That crap has been washing around forever. Will our lofty professors ever let this song die?

(We know, we know. You can parse that passage carefully, making it technically accurate.)

On the whole, Duke should be embarrassed by this highly incoherent column. So should the Washington Post. But don’t worry—in many precincts, it’s all about those pleasing narratives. Has been for a long time.


  1. The pressure on bureaucrats and teachers to produce desired numbers is no greater than the pressure on businessmen to report desired profits. However, businessmen rarely cook their books, because when they get caught, they go to prison. If government employees faced real punishment, then there would be fewer fraudulent statistics.

  2. Really? Businessmen rarely cook the books?

    Such naïveté! Didn't we just experience a near global-economic catastrophe precisely BECAUSE businessmen in high finance lied, obtained falsely inflated bond ratings and defrauded mortgage buyers, pensions and mutual funds, and other financial institutions for their own profit? In what way is that not "cooking the books?"

    Ah, but that old conservative mantra prevails in your statement-- private business is generally honest and accountable, while government institutions are not. Believe me, plenty of public officials face "real punishment" for fudging their reports and plenty of businessmen lie in the faces of their customers, the SEC, the IRS and their own stockholders. To believe otherwise is to be defiantly obtuse.