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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Protections against institutional cheating in NYC schools

Spurred by reports of widespread cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; Pennsylvania; and elsewhere, New York State Education Commissioner John King announced last week the creation of a “high level working group” to address "the integrity of our testing system.” The Bloomberg administration responded that this was "a knee-jerk reaction to cheating scandals in other states."

Unfortunately, the announcement was marred by the state’s failure to reveal who was appointed to this task force. As the NY Post noted,
Oddly, the announcement came two weeks after the formation of the group, and department officials couldn't say who or how many people were on it other than Executive Deputy Commissioner Valerie Grey."
Indeed, there is a crying need for more systematic protections against cheating, which were eliminated when Bloomberg and Klein took office, as pointed out in our book, NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein. Here is an excerpt from the chapter on "Institutional Cheating" by Sol Stern and Andy Wolf, showing how multiple procedures were in place previously – even before there was such huge emphasis placed on test scores:
Before test documents were destroyed, the Board [of Education] routinely conducted several levels of analyses to detect cheating. Robert Tobias, former director of testing and assessment for the BOE, provided us with the following summary of the board’s actions to screen for possible cheating:
“One was an erasure analysis that identified classes and schools with a high incidence of answers that were erased and changed from wrong to right. A second was a gains analysis that identified schools where students showed extremely high increases in test scores over the previous year. The third was an item analysis that detected unusual scoring patterns, such as large numbers of students who answered difficult questions correctly but easy questions incorrectly. In addition to these forensic analyses, we collected information on allegations of cheating from District Assessment Liaisons and other informants.
“When this information raised credible suspicion, we placed the respective test answer documents in secure storage, referred the matter to the Office of Special Investigations, and did not destroy the test documents until the investigation was completed. In other instances, we were directed to send the test documents to the State Education Department or the Special Investigator for the NYC Public Schools to facilitate investigations of cheating allegations referred directly to them. These procedures were in place when I retired from the public schools in Nov. 2001.”
It was also the practice of the old Board of Education to dispatch district administrators to each school on test days to oversee procedures. They would check on whether the tests were stored in a secure place in unopened cartons, observe the opening of the cartons and removal of the shrink wrap on the exams, and monitor the distribution and collection of the test materials. Finally they would oversee the delivery of the completed test papers to the district office.
All this was eliminated when Bloomberg and Klein took office. In a 2009 audit, the NYC Comptroller’s office concluded that the city Department of Education had “engaged in sloppy and unprofessional practices that encourage cheating and data manipulation.”

As to this new, rather mysterious state task force, one can hope that it will propose meaningful reforms, though there are many reasons to be doubtful. The NY State Education Department (NYSED) has in the past been known as the murky graveyard of whistleblower complaints, as ineffective as the endlessly inconclusive investigations of the NYC Department of Education, which tend to trail on for years, like a replay of “Waiting for Godot,” with little or no results.

Indeed, one might argue that having NYSED rely on an internal working group to guard against cheating is a little like Rupert Murdoch putting Joel Klein in charge of News Corp’s internal investigation into the phone hacking scandal: neither can be fully trusted to pursue this issue aggressively since they are fatally compromised by their institutional desire to look good; in this case, to show that schools are improving when there may be no actual gains.

Note the way in which NYSED and the Regents have just acceded to DOE’s demands to deregulate virtual (online) learning, with no attempt to provide any sort of oversight or quality control, and no requirement that students even attend classes to graduate.

Instead, the new regulations are a blank check, enabling DOE to continue and expand its fraudulent use of online credit recovery – deregulated by NYSED in 2009 --except that now, high school students won’t have to fail courses initially to gain enough credits to graduate through this substandard educational delivery system.

Jackie Bennett has analyzed how credit accumulation has soared in in recent years, just as it became one of the central components of DOE’s high-stakes accountability system, determining which schools will remain open and which will be closed:
In this city, the number of credits awarded to students in high schools truly is high stakes. It counts as nearly one third of each high school’s Progress Report grade, and the Progress Report counts for just about everything, including the removal of principals and the closing of schools. Since the Progress Reports were introduced in 2006-2007, the percent of students earning 10 or more credits each year has leapt a (truly) incredible 16 percentage points citywide. For schools with the highest concentration of high need students (the schools most likely to be threatened with closure) the jump is 18 points.
At the same time as credit accumulation and graduation rates have risen, the number of NYC high school graduates needing triple remediation (in reading, writing and math) at CUNY community colleges has doubled.

On this blog, we recently featured a post by a teacher revealing how credit recovery was used -- or misused -- in her school, after DOE coached her principal on how to implement it. See also here, and here, for even more cases of fraudulent online credit recovery -- which  flourish with the open encouragement of the educrats at Tweed.

Yet rather than attempt to put the brakes on this growing scam, last month the Regents and the NY State Education Department agreed to eliminate all controls on online learning, including any attendance requirements, allowing schools to give credits to students whether they come to school or not. There are no longer any class size limits as long as the course of study is undertaken under the general “supervision” of a teacher, who can “oversee” any number of students, according to the new regulations.

In the end, however, even if the state was really committed to preventing cheating, nothing is likely to work as long as our high-stakes accountability system remains in force. Campbell’s Law (which Steve Koss wrote about in our book, and as far back as 2007 on our blog) predicts that the more high-stakes testing is used for decision-making, the more cheating and gaming of the system is inevitable. As Bob Tobias pointed out in a recent interview,
the current emphasis on high-stakes accountability …encourages some people to do the wrong thing. So as you kick the stakes up, people are going to focus on the metrics that will be used to determine their fate. They’ll be looking for ways to elevate those metrics, and some people will try to take a short route.”
Yong Zhao, eminent professor at the University of Oregon, has explored the numerous ways in which the growing overemphasis on standardized exams is undermining our public schools. He used the proliferation of school cheating scandals as the jumping-off point for a brilliant five-part series on his blog, concluding that the nation’s public schools must “ditch testing.” In an interview with Education Week, he suggested that as an alternative, the country should move to a portfolio-based assessment system:
“You can’t fix this by changing internal security,” Mr. Zhao said. “If the stakes are so high that the teachers don’t even believe the measurement itself, they’re going to try to cheat.”

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