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Posted at 10:36 PM ET, 03/29/2011

Michelle Rhee’s flat-earth response to testing reliability

USA Today’s very thorough investigation of high erasure rates at certain high performing D.C. public schools, particularly Noyes Elementary in Northeast, has rightly been much noticed and much commented upon. I will leave it to the education reporters and commentators to parse what the allegations mean about the implications and wisdom of high-stakes K-12 testing.

What I am more interested in parsing is former Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s reaction to the story. As City Paper’s Alan Suderman noted this morning, Rhee declined to comment to USA Today’s Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello when they reported their story, but after its publication Monday, gave them a response that attacked them for “insulting” teachers and schoolkids:

“It isn’t surprising that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved for DCPS students unless someone cheated,” Rhee said. “It is surprising to see USA Today proceed down this path in the face of a statement from the independent investigators that there was no evidence of cheating. This story is an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels.”

Rhee — who now heads StudentsFirst, a well-funded education reform group — echoed her statement in an interview Monday night with with PBS host Tavis Smiley: “Often times when the academic achievement rates of a district like D.C. go up, people assume that it can’t be because the kids are actually attaining higher gains in student achievement, but that it’s because of something like cheating, which in this case is absolutely not the case.”

Smiley asked Rhee if she thought the story was “much ado about nothing” and “lacking in integrity.” Said Rhee: “Absolutely. If you look at the story overall, it absolutely lacks credibility.”

Let’s be clear about Rhee’s argument here: You dare not question the achievements of poor inner-city schoolchildren.

There’s an admirable sentiment behind that statement. Too often the kids at Noyes and at many other schools like it are not expected to achieve at the same level as kids at Mann Elementary or Lafayette Elementary in the tonier parts of the District.

But what Rhee has erected for herself is a very large, very sympathetic straw man. You have to go awfully deep into the 4,000-word USA Today story to find the “enemies of school reform” (aka union bosses) — past a whole lot of parents and testing experts and DCPS officials. And the kids, as it happens, are not the only folks who have a stake here — “students first” rhetoric aside.

There are teachers who now find their jobs potentially on the line due to their students’ test scores. Same goes for principals, who can achieve hero status with rapid testing gains or sudden unemployment with rapid testing reversals. There are District taxpayers and private philanthropists, who paid for bonuses to students and faculty at DCPS schools that posted big test gains. There are federal taxpayers, who are paying for $4.3 billion in Race to the Top grants that are awarded in no small part based on the wide implementation of high-stakes testing. And there’s Rhee herself, who has built a reputation and a lucrative career selling a particular brand of education reform that advocates improving teacher quality through the wide use of standardize tests.

So forgive Gillum and Bello for asking some questions. The statistical evidence behind the allegations is compelling. And while Rhee says their story “lacks credibility,” the same could be said for an investigation into cheating that “didn’t ask if teachers cheated.”

Dana Goldstein writes at the Daily Beast about high-stakes testing in the lens of Campbell’s Law — the social-science maxim that holds that the reliability of a decision-making tool is inversely proportional to the importance of the decision being made. That is, the more a test score is worth, the more it’s worth cheating on the test.

The idea that a principal and/or teachers would perhaps seek to manipulate a test on which their livelihoods might well rest is awfully plausible, and for Rhee to dismiss the prospect out of hand because of the kids’ background is awfully naive, self-serving or both.

Who’s the flat-earther here, anyway?

By  |  10:36 PM ET, 03/29/2011

 
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