How inspections would embarrass schools


Third graders walk into math class at Beers Elementary School in Washington, D.C. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 1, 2012

If we rid ourselves of standardized tests to rate public schools, what would we have instead? The most likely alternative is the inspectorate used in England. Scholars such as Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute say school visits by well-trained inspectors would reveal more about what needs fixing than test-score averages.

Would teachers, parents, voters and taxpayers support such a system? Some D.C. schools are getting a taste of this approach. A just-released report should generate second thoughts about letting independent experts roam our schools and report what they see and hear. I think inspections are a good idea, but schools should know that the results can be embarrassing, as they were in the District.

The inspectors (they didn’t use that term, but it seems to fit) were from the consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal. They were fulfilling a $400,000 contract with the D.C. schools and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to investigate cheating and lax security on the 2011 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests.

Here are samples of the messes they discovered (nearly all names were redacted):

Langdon Education Campus: When asked who had access to the cabinet with test answer sheets, “[redacted] said s/he has a key to the cabinet, not the room. [Redacted] said s/he had a key to the room, not the cabinet. The Test Coordinator said s/he doesn’t have a key to either the room or the cabinet.”

Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter School: “The 2011 Test Security Files were not available for review, due to the files being purged after the school received the test results. . . . There were inconsistencies in who has keys to the secure location, [redacted]’s office, where the test materials are stored. The Test Coordinator stated that the Principal has access. However, the Principal stated that s/he does not have access but the Business Manager, the Test Coordinator, and possibly a custodian have access.”

Raymond Education Campus: “Our overall impression of Raymond was that the school suffers from a lack of trust among the administration, new teachers and older teachers. In more than one case, conflicting accounts were given about facts or events.”

Banneker Academic High School: “Teachers seem to have a general apprehension about voicing concerns at Banneker. No one had a problem with raising a test-related concern in the past or the future, but based on other previous concerns raised, they felt either they would be punished or their concerns would not be addressed.”

The reports provide many more examples like these of missing documents, violations of procedures and bad management that should lead to administrators being disciplined.

An established inspection system would presumably have investigators more knowledgeable and experienced, with a broader mandate, than the Alvarez & Marsal team.

The D.C. visitors questioned only two or three students at most of the schools that were flagged for irregularities in test scores and the number of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets. They should have asked students who had many changes on their sheets if they recalled making them. I suspect the answer would have often been “no” — and that would have been evidence that adults fiddled with the tests after the students went home.

These inspections revealed, in some cases, little trust between teachers and administrators, which inhibits learning. Alvarez & Marsal found some very defensive administrators. At the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, an unnamed person insisted on sitting in at the interview with the test chairperson, despite the investigators’ objections.

Well-trained inspectors could check student behavior, teaching techniques, administrative efficiency and use of time.

Imagine how helpful it would be to learn which schools have admirable principals and collaborative teachers and which don’t.

I doubt we would abolish tests if we added inspections. But the investigators could provide useful insights on why scores were low or high. I didn’t like barracks inspections in the Army, but they motivated me. Why not try them in a few schools and see what happens?

To see more columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/blogs/
class-struggle.

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