03/14/2011 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Coming to Grips With the Annual Educational Malpractice Season

In 1992, when Kaya Henderson began her brief Teach for America classroom career, she could not have wanted to condemn poor children to a soulless regime of standardized test prep. As recently as last November, she said, "People understand that tests are a benchmark, not the goal. The goal is to educate children. And I think the swing of the pendulum from absolutely no accountability to what I might call data craziness is starting to hurt."

I remain hopeful that the new chancellor of the D.C. schools will heed the preliminary report from the National Research Council, which concluded that it is "naive" to trust that the district's test scores reflect real increases in learning, as opposed to demographic changes or other factors. It also offered a corrective to the hype over the supposed improvements under Michelle Rhee, and reported that D.C.'s test score increases have been modest.

I am also hopeful that Henderson will engage in some soul searching as she considers the start of the district's (now) annual educational malpractice season. Award-winning Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote, "Stung by a decline in elementary school reading and math scores on 2010 standardized tests, D.C. officials are raising the intensity of preparations for this year's exams to unprecedented levels."

In February, an operational blueprint was issued for the test prep season, and some schools have already abandoned the teaching of science and social studies as they focus on specific bubble-in skills. When Michelle Rhee started the disgusting practice of tutoring only for "bubble kids," who were within striking distance of crossing the cut score to "Satisfactory," enough decency was left to try to obscure the harsh reality of "educational triage." Now, Turque cited a principal willing to put a directive into writing that instructed teachers to focus on ten students each, who are within seven points of advancing to a higher performance level.

This educational malpractice is likely to backfire. Last year's test score drop was probably due to increased test security, which made it more difficult to alter answer sheets to boost scores, and "testing fatigue." Many teachers say that "D.C. kids are weary of the yearly barrage of tests that disrupt classroom routines and scuttle special events such as field trips."

I also wonder how Henderson feels about the recent investigation by USA Today about the national epidemic of cheating to comply with data-driven accountability. In Washington, D.C., 52 schools -- almost a third of the district -- have been flagged at least once in the past three years because of unusually high erasure rates on standardized tests. At Stanton Elementary, erasure rates in 4th grade math in 2009 were ten times the district average.

"On a math test administered to 20 students, 345 answers were changed -- 97% of them to the correct answer. That was the same year the 4th graders' achievement scores skyrocketed from the bottom to near the top of D.C.'s 4th graders." I wonder what Henderson really believes about the Solomonic decision reached in regard to Stanton -- an unnamed teacher can no longer proctor tests.

Like Henderson, Rhee worked her way up through politicized policy circles where great leeway is granted for spinning the truth. But once she took a management position involving evaluations, the criteria for accuracy changed. Repeating falsehoods in the political arena is normal, but intentionally making inaccurate statements during due process and evaluation proceedings is another, and for three and half years Rhee skirted the edge of legality. And Henderson is already dealing with one multi-million dollar legacy of that disrespect for propriety.

I suspect that Henderson understands the folly of outright cheating and lying. The bigger issue is whether she will come to grips with the far more pervasive -- and destructive -- gamesmanship to jack up test scores. The key question is whether she will listen to Linda Perlstein, who followed a teacher in a high-poverty school for her classic, Tested. The award-winning Perlstein explained how that teacher raised her students' pass rate to 90% by hard work and by having "a good sense of what was going to be on the Maryland School Assessment. The exam, and the benchmark tests designed in its image, didn't change a whole lot from year to year -- there were certain constructs that showed up again and again, and certain questions too."

Perlstein captured the tragedy of this test prep by describing the instruction toward the question, "How do you know such-and-such is a poem?" The standard tested was identifying the elements of a poem. We all know that the best way to ingrain an enduring understanding of poetry is to have students not just read poems but to engage with them -- especially, to write them. These kids didn't do that. More than 30 times the teacher had the kids copy some form of this paragraph from the overhead projector: "I know this is a poem because it has rhyme, stanzas and rhythm. It has rhyme because sea and free rhyme. It has stanzas because the paragraphs don't indent. It has rhythm because..."

After testing was over, the students were finally allowed to write a couple of poems.

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