Testing, Testing

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I think this USA Today story on Crosby S. Noyes, a much congratulated public school in D.C., is a problem:


When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student. In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. 

The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.


"It isn't surprising," Rhee said in a statement Monday, "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 ... unless someone cheated."

...is silly, if typical. Mark Kleiman goes further


Initially, I thought Michelle Rhee just didn't know how to talk--that she was effective, but impolitic. But sometimes there's no difference between the two. There's a point toward the end of the story where two parents note that their suspicions were raised after their kids scores shot up, while their kids were still struggling in math:

A former Noyes parent, Marvin Tucker, says he suspected something was wrong in 2003, when the test scores his daughter, Marlana, brought home from school showed she was proficient in math. Tucker says he was skeptical because the third-grader was getting daily instruction from a private tutor yet struggled with addition and subtraction. "She was nowhere near where they said she was on the test," he says. "I thought something was wrong with the test."

He questioned Ryan, the principal, and teachers about his daughter's scores but no one could explain how she had scored so high, Tucker recalls. Ultimately, Ryan barred him from the school for a year, saying he had threatened staff members, Tucker says. Tucker denies that. 

Tucker also points out that if his daughter was proficient as a third-grader, that didn't last. When Marlana moved on to middle school elsewhere in D.C., her test scores fell and she no longer was considered proficient in math, he says.

This is not a matter of being politically correct, or speaking with sensitivity, it's a matter of not speaking at all. Communication is part of the job. And when you start alleging grand conspiracies to explain away criticism, I start to think that communication may well be the least of your failures.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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