5 Thoughts on the New Yorker Cheating Story

This week’s New Yorker has a piece from Rachel Aviv taking an in-depth look at the Atlanta cheating scandal. I had five thoughts as I read it:

1. It’s a very well-written story about cheating. Aviv identies compelling characters, weaves a coherent narrative, and includes some incredible details, like how exactly teachers and the school principal at Parks Middle School in Atlanta were able to successfully pull off a years-long cheating scheme. Those “high” scores at Parks earned plaudits from local business leaders, Superintendent Beverly Hall (who Aviv paints as willfully blind to cheating), the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

2. It’s a very well-written story about cheating at one Atlanta middle schoolAviv attempts to expand the story to other places by quoting education scholars like David Berliner, Jennifer Jennings, and John Ewing, a former executive director of the American Mathematical Society;  throwing in a reference to Campbell’s Law; and mentioning cheating scandals in other cities, but ultimately her story is limited in scope. That’s not to diminish it at all–her colorful reporting is wonderful to read–it just doesn’t provide any new evidence on how widespread cheating is across the country.

3. Where’s the context? Buried in the midst of a 9,000-word story about cheating in Atlanta, Aviv includes one sentence telling us that, “On the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which is less susceptible to tampering, Atlanta’s reading scores rose more rapidly than those of the other nine cities where students took the test.” It’s a much more complicated story when you remember that Atlanta’s poor and black students made real progress throughout the same period.

4. Even The New Yorker’s fact-checkers can’t get NCLB right. Aviv writes that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was “a nearly utopian statute that required all public-school students to become proficient in math and reading by 2014.” While NCLB did set 100 percent proficiency in math and reading as a goal, that’s not what it requires in practice. Because of a provision known as safe harbor, schools and subgroups can sufficiently demonstrate progress far below 100 percent proficiency (see here for an example of how this works for an actual school).

5. It’s more complicated than “it’s NCLB’s fault.” Aviv writes that under NCLB, “Schools that didn’t progress at an appropriate pace…received a series of escalating sanctions, including state monitoring, a revised curriculum, replacement of staff, and restructuring or closure of the school.” These interventions are preceded by things like offering students after-school tutoring or the option of transferring to a new school. Importantly, Aviv fails to mention that the school-based interventions are merely optional. NCLB requires low-performing schools to pick “one of the following” from a list of interventions. Using the last year of data available for the entire state of Georgia, here’s a complete list of what persistently low-performing schools actually did because of NCLB:

  • Required implementation of a new research-based curriculum or instructional program (60 schools)
  • Other major restructuring of the school governance (32 schools)

And here’s a complete list of things Georgia public schools did NOT do as a result of NCLB:

  • Extension of the school year or school day
  • Replacement of staff members relevant to the school’s low performance
  • Significant decrease in management authority at the school level
  • Replacement of the principal
  • Restructuring the internal organization of the school
  • Appointment of an outside expert to advise the school
  • Replacement of all or most of the school staff (which may include the principal)
  • Reopening the school as a public charter school
  • Entering into a contract with a private entity to operate the school
  • Takeover the school by the State

In other words, NCLB consequences and the ways in which district leaders might have chosen to put pressure on principals (and principals on their staffs) are actually two different things. Just because Atlanta principals and teachers felt real pressure to improve, the sources of that pressure and the threat behind it are more complex than NCLB alone. Schools and districts had choices under NCLB, and they almost always chose the least-painful option.

–Chad Aldeman

An Exit Ramp for Exit Exams?

Accountability policies in education often suffer from trying to satisfy two competing desires. Accountability hawks want tough policies that establish minimal standards to ensure that a student’s education means something in the real world. Opportunity advocates want to ensure that all students are given sufficient chances and point to data suggesting that societies are better off with a more educated citizenry. Both of these are reasonable positions, but combined together they can lead to indecipherable mush.

High school exit exams offer one example of how these impulses collide. Designed to be a tough, rigorous bar for completion, exit exams have failed to boost student achievement or certify students as prepared for college or career success. On the lower end, despite states enacting policies allowing numerous re-takes or alternative routes to passing, exit exams slightly reduce the likelihood that disadvantaged students will finish high school at all. My go-to example of this conundrum is Maryland, where, in the first two years of implementing its new high school exit exams, 0.06 percent of its seniors were denied a high school diploma because of the new, “stronger” graduation requirements. Even in 2013, Maryland’s exit exams ultimately prevented only 13 (!) 12th graders in the entire state from graduating, an unlucky baker’s dozen of students who failed to pass the High School Assessments, complete an alternate route called a “Bridge Plan,” or receive a state waiver.

Today’s report from New America’s Anne Hyslop looks at the history of high school exit exams (sometimes called “minimum competency exams” or “graduation exams”) and the tensions between high standards and high attainment. Most importantly, she outlines a path forward for states with existing exams (24 as of last year) as they navigate new tests aligned to the Common Core, concerns about over-testing, and demands for students to leave high school ready for college-level work. Read it here.

–Chad Aldeman