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Ohanian Note: When I read the Wall Street Journal article a few days ago, I just sighed and moved on. But now John Merrow has some good observations. He goes off track at the end with his suggestions of what schools should be doing. But the observations about what the Wall Street Journal ignored are rare in journalism circles, and the quotes about Caveon make it worth the trip.

As I've mentioned before, New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv gets at the heart and soul of what happened in Atlanta in her "Wrong Answer"
In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice."

Beverly Hall belonged to a movement of reformers who believed that the values of the marketplace could resuscitate public education. She approached the job like a business executive: she courted philanthropists, set accountability measures, and created performance objectives that were more rigorous than those required by No Child Left Behind, which became law in 2002. When a school met its targets, all employees, including bus drivers and cafeteria staff, received up to two thousand dollars. She linked teacher evaluations to test scores and warned principals that they'd be fired if they didn't meet targets within three years. Eventually, ninety per cent were replaced. She repeated the mantra "No exceptions and no excuses."

Aviv details the daily lives of good people who were doing good things with and for children were forced to Live data, sleep data, eat data. "All decisions have to be made by data--you have to be baptized in it." The cheating became so obsessive, and really, so crazy that you almost laugh while you read about it. But the reality stops that laughter.

Yes, people made choices. But I regard Atlanta as a tragedy of ruined lives, and I blame the Feds who, never having taught a day in their lives, brought NCLB and RTTT down on the schools. I blame the governors who signed on and who, in the face of the ruin of schools, refuse to pull out.

I blame people who still call for more rigor.
I'll think about rigor (though I'll never use that word) when the parents of children in our public schools receive a living wage.

And remember the important point Rich Gibson makes in his letter to the Los Angeles Times:
While appalled by the nation-wide test cheating scandals, it is impossible not to note that classroom teachers, who rightly feared for their jobs, face 35 years in prison on conspiracy charges while grifting bankers laundered money for terrorists and drug cartels were never criminally charged. Instead their banks were fined, big wrist-slaps, and nobody went to jail. Perhaps the greater guilt lies with the likes of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and others, who promulgate the test score fetishes, measuring little more than parental income and home language, as gate-keepers to employment and promotion for students and teachers alike. If we consider the teachers to be little more than bank robo-signers, we see the issue in the proper perspective. First graders know what, "No Fair!" is.
Black Agenda Report editor Glen Ford makes a strong case against Eric Holder and his boss: Eric Holder's Damnable Legacy: Impunity for the Rich and the Death of Due Process.

Learning Matters

by John Merrow

Bizarro, Nevada, October 1--In a powerful response to hordes of young adults using Main Street for drag races "day and night," an angry City Council voted to impose $250 fines and 30-day jail terms for jaywalking. "These damn hot rodders are endangering our citizens, and the only way to stop them is to keep our citizens out of the streets."

Well, OK, that didn't happen. There is no town of Bizarro, Nevada, and I hope no one would pass laws to punish the victims--but that's what came to mind when I read a Wall Street Journal report about schools' beefing up test security, headlined Schools' Test: Beat the Cheat.

The gist of the article: Because no school district wants to be "the next Atlanta," where intense pressures from leadership led to massive cheating by some principals and teachers, they are investing heavily in security measures to keep students and teachers from cheating. But the Journal article says nothing about addressing the cause of widespread cheating, the pressure from leadership to produce high test scores. It might have at least raised the question of whether districts were treating symptoms, not causes.

Here's an analogy: Imagine you are sitting on a bed of nails and screaming in pain--and, to cure the problem, someone gives you strong pain pills and then stuffs a gag in your mouth to stop you from screaming. Problem solved, right?

The reporting is flawed in another important way. The Journal cites as the leading authority on cheating prevention the founder of Caveon Security, John Fremer. Clearly no one did a simple background check. If they had, they would have learned that Caveon's track record includes some significant failures, starting with Atlanta. That's right: Caveon was hired by the Atlanta School Board to investigate allegations of cheating--and its investigators found nothing wrong!

"Caveon couldn't find its ass with either hand," said one of the two lawyers who led the subsequent investigation demanded by Georgia's governor; that's the one that found the cheating, identified the alleged cheaters, and produced the indictments. (The trial began on September 29th.)

Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) "Blue Ribbon Committee" established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta. Caveon looked--and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests. Dr. Fremer told me that while he 'knew' there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. "We did not try to find out who was cheating," he said. "Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable." In other words, Caveon produced a list!

Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn't have subpoena power.

Georgia's investigators are contemptuous of Caveon's efforts, labelling it a 'so-called investigation.' Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that "either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail." Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government. What's more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest--it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the "Blue Ribbon Commission" (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as "The Whitewash Commission") included a deputy superintendent of schools.

Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, is even blunter. Of course Caveon didn't find cheating because "Caveon couldn't find its own ass with either hand," he scoffed. Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him--unless they didn't want to find out anything.

Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. "We try to be non-emotional," he said, acknowledging that "People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us."

Caveon also conducted two deeply flawed 'investigations' into allegations of cheating in Washington, DC, again finding nothing of consequence.

For the full story:

Penetrating the Smokescreen

Michelle Rhee and the Washington Post

Michelle Rhee's Reign of Error

Having failed to tells its readers of Caveon's track record of failure in Atlanta and Washington, DC, the Journal then reports--without irony--that security providers like Caveon are enjoying a huge upsurge in business. Mr. Fremer says that Caveon's revenue has grown by 40% every year for the past three years.

Failure pays! There's a lesson for Wall Street Journal readers.

In another interesting omission, the Journal reporters do not cite Washington as a place where cheaters prospered. Houston and Philadelphia get mentioned but not our nation's capital, where then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee handed out large bonuses to principals whose schools had made 'unbelievable' gains on the city's standardized test. . . and where student answer sheets were discovered to have an inordinately high rate of 'wrong to right' erasures.

Buried deep in the WSJ article is one person's expression of concern that schools are overcompensating, spending money on testing security that ought to be spent on art, music, teaching and learning. But that person is Randi Weingarten, familiar to WSJ readers as the strident president of a teachers union.

For a newspaper that focuses on financial matters, the article is notably short of numbers. We don't learn how much money any district is spending on enhanced security. That dollar figure would be useful to have, because it could then be translated into terms we can understand: number of assistant teacher positions, number of counselor slots, and so forth.'

Even deeper in the article is one parent's complaint that her child's school now resembles a prison.

There's stuff going on in the testing arena that might also have been part of the Journal's coverage. (Perhaps it will come up in future pieces.) I'm referring to growing evidence of a 'great awakening' about the impact of test-based school reform.

Consider Massachusetts, for example:

The new chair of the state Board of Education raised concerns about the focus on standardized test preparation in Massachusetts schools, as board members on Tuesday discussed whether some districts give too many practice tests to prepare students for the MCAS.

Board chairwoman Margaret McKenna said some schools test students 20 to 25 days per school year, including practice and pre-tests. Board members said some school officials are blaming the state for the test prep focus.

"What I keep hearing is the districts keep saying it's the state; the state keeps saying it's the districts," said McKenna, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Deval Patrick in August.

McKenna said the intention of the test seems to have gotten lost.

"I think it's time for the state to say, 'Wait a minute here, that is not the intention.' We've got to figure out a way to make sure people are not teaching to the test," said McKenna, who spent 22 years as president of Lesley University in Cambridge.

And in Florida:

The Lee School Board struck down the district's proposed testing calendar at its Tuesday night meeting, effectively eliminating 68 tests from grades kindergarten through fifth grade and putting assessment decisions back in teachers' hands.

The motion passed 3-1 with Cathleen Morgan in opposition and Chairman Tom Scott absent due to illness after school board members deliberated the necessity of district-mandated tests. . . .

(Board member Mary) Fischer said the amount of testing in recent years have been a form of "child abuse."

"We're supposed to have a learning environment for kids that is safe, and makes them ready to learn," Fischer said. "So when they're coming in afraid of the testing, and you tell them they're failing and parents are stressed out, it negatively impacts children in a psychological way."

Two well-placed political types recently told me that legislators in their states (one eastern, one western) were hearing one message from constituents: 'Too much testing.'

The left is salivating about what it sees as--and hopes is--a growing revolt against 'excessive' testing. FairTest publishes a weekly scorecard, an example of which you can find
. Regular updates are at fairtest.org.

The proper adjective for the right might be "concerned." Some stalwarts have published a Guiding Principles statement headlined An Open Letter On School Accountability To State Superintendents of Education and Governors. While you may be interested to see who has signed it, and who has not, please don't let that keep you from reading what they have to say about the dangers of overreacting to the pressure to dial back on accountability.

But the canary in the mine--real evidence that test-based accountability may be counter-productive--is this year's Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education. Every year I can remember there have been four or five finalists, but this year only two of the 75 eligible districts were deemed to be doing well enough to be considered for the Prize. The judges use a 'green, yellow, red' grading system in a bunch of categories; one judge told me that, of the 20 semi-finalists, most scored 'yellow' or 'red' in most categories. It was, he said, a cause for concern.

Ben Weider of the blog 538 does a wonderful job of deconstructing the issue here, in a piece entitled "The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners." The headline may suffer from hyperbole, but the article is well-reasoned and sourced.

The key point: the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners have been flat for years. These are the districts that have been living and dying by test scores, and it's not working.

Mixing cliches, the canary in the mine [1] is also the elephant in the room. It is an issue we cannot afford to ignore, because, if things are so bad that only two of 75 urban districts are making significant progress, then we shouldn't be doubling down on that approach to schooling. Rather, those who are concerned about urban education should examine general practices in urban districts. I'd suggest starting by questioning the frequency of bubble testing, their purposes and the use of their results [2].

Public school districts shouldn't be spending time, energy and money on strategies to prevent cheating. Those resources ought to be devoted to creating a more challenging curriculum that gives students more control over their own learning and engages them in the deeper learning of project-based classes. Technology, when 'blended' with (and by) skilled teachers, allows students to dig deeper and soar higher, and that's what our young people need to experience when they go to school. More 'rigorous' training in regurgitating information (and passing tests) is a flawed strategy, and all the expensive security measures in the world will not obscure that truth.


1. Speaking of a canary in the mine, I was struck by Geoff Canada's comments at the Broad Foundation Award event on Monday. Mr. Canada, the creator of the Harlem Children's Zone, is well-known for his anti-union stance, his role in "Waiting for 'Superman,'" and his alliance with Michelle Rhee, but on Monday he went way 'off message' to criticize excessive testing. We often test without purpose, he said, giving tests in March or April but not getting results until late August. If I heard him correctly, he was saying that we test too much and trust teachers too little. Mr. Canada was responding to my tweeted question, but I wasn't the moderator and so could not push him on what he was saying. But if an educator with the following and stature of Geoff Canada is questioning testing, something is happening.
2. The US uses test scores to evaluate, rate, punish and (sometimes) reward teachers. Most advanced countries use testing and assessment to assess students!

For School Tests, Measures to Detect Cheating Proliferate: Scandal in Atlanta Transforms How Educators Approach Exam Security

By Cameron McWhirter and Caroline Porter
Wall Street Journal
Sept. 26, 2014

ATLANTA--A scandal that has enveloped the public-school system here for years is transforming how educators across the country are approaching test security, giving rise to a burgeoning industry in detecting cheating on standardized exams.

School districts from Delaware to Idaho are employing tactics such as hiring anti-cheating consultants, buying software to spot wrongdoers, and requiring testing companies to offer anti-cheating plans when seeking contracts.

"Nobody wants to be Atlanta," said Gregory Cizek, a professor at the University of North Carolina's School of Education and an expert on the prevention of cheating in tests.

Opening arguments have been scheduled to begin next week in the conspiracy trial of former educators in the Atlanta school system, one of the nation's largest. In 2011, special investigators found widespread cheating on state standardized tests by Atlanta educators. The report said teachers altered students' answers in response to pressure from then Superintendent Beverly Hall's administration to show an improvement in the district's scores, or face discipline or lower pay.

In 2013, 35 people, including Ms. Hall, were indicted on conspiracy and other charges. Since then, 21 of those have cut deals with prosecutors and pleaded guilty. One defendant died. Ms. Hall is too sick with breast cancer to stand trial. Her lawyers have said she is innocent and wasn't aware of any wrongdoing. Twelve defendants remain.

Mr. Cizek, who has been tapped as a witness for the prosecution, wouldn't comment on the particulars of the case. But he said that for schools across the country, "The whole Atlanta situation has been a game changer."

The scandal--which has been followed by similar problems coming to light in Philadelphia and Houston--has led school leaders to change the way they carry out testing, according to John Fremer, co-founder of Caveon Test Security, one of the nation's largest companies in cheating prevention and detection.

"People used to ask, 'Why do we need it?' " Mr. Fremer said. "Now they don't."

A raft of state education departments have introduced new security measures. At least eight, including those of Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Indiana, Massachusetts and Florida, have employed services from Caveon, according to the company.

Following the cheating scandal in Philadelphia, school officials there emphasized physical changes such as stripping teachers' classrooms of posters and words when they monitor tests.

"The culture has changed, and the look and feel of the classroom changes during the testing season," said Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the district. "It's necessary."

Education experts attribute the cheating problems in part to schools' increased use in recent years of standardized tests, under both the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top policies. Some federal and state policies have tied student scores in the tests to evaluations of teachers and schools'evaluations that can influence decisions on hiring and funding. That could raise the likelihood of cheating, experts say.

"These incidents are the tip of the iceberg," said Henry Braun, professor of education and public policy at Boston College. "High-stakes testing is changing the way teachers behave."

To combat potential wrongdoing, two major testing groups--the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which provides standardized tests for about 20 states, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which provides exams for about a dozen states and the District of Columbia--have focused on measures including computerized tests that vary according to individual students' responses, as well as strict identification checks for test takers. Testing companies such as CTB/ McGraw-Hill MHFI -2.14% are marketing security training packages to school systems, education departments and licensing boards.

Providers are enjoying a surge in business. Mr. Fremer, at Caveon, said that for each of the last three years the company's revenue has grown about 40% over the previous year.

Some worry that school systems are overcompensating with anti-cheating safeguards, and spending money to support a high-stakes testing culture rather than on teaching resources.

"All these companies have started, and school systems are spending a lot more time on testing and test prep, and a lot less money on music and art, or on teaching and learning," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Alison McDowell, a 46-year-old mother of an eighth-grader in Philadelphia, said the impact of the scandal there has rippled across the district as security measures have grown and warnings have been sent to children, parents and teachers.

"It has essentially created a prison-like culture at our schools [during testing season," she said.

Cheating on paper exams, as happened in Atlanta, is likely a thing of the past as states switch to electronic exams. Widespread cheating on computerized tests will, at first at least, become more difficult because students will have randomized questions, experts say. In some schools, however, limited computer access--due to a lack of the bandwidth needed for mass testing--could exacerbate wrongdoing. Children will have to be rotated into testing rooms over several days, giving time for cheaters to steal answers.

Computer programs can vary test questions and encrypt to make cheating difficult, yet it will persist in some form, including the use of smartphones and other devices, according to Mr. Cizek and others.

"I don't see this going away any time soon," said Mr. Braun, at Boston College.

Write to Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com and Caroline Porter at caroline.porter@wsj.com

— John Merrow with Ohanian comment
Learning Matters





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