Of all the memorable scenes in Stand and Deliver, the feel-good biopic of the late, great Jaime Escalante, one of the most compelling was when his students were accused of cheating on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam.
The position of the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, was that the students got the same answers wrong, raising suspicions of cheating. Escalante countered that his particular method meant that students would approach the problems in a consistent fashion.
An outraged Escalante offers a stirring defense of his students, making the point to ETS officials, one of whom is Latino, that the skepticism about the high scores was happening in large part because of his students’ brown skin and poor backgrounds.
As moviegoers know, the students had to retake the exam, and, while not all did as well the second time as the first, enough passed again to appear to resolve the testing conundrum.
I use the word “appear” deliberately. In his biography of Escalante, Jay Mathews, who since has gone on to become a cheerleader for charter schools and bring a U.S. News and World Report mentality to high school with his annual rankings, wrote that some of the students admitted to having cheated, then recanted and said they were joking.
Mathews does not offer a conclusive opinion in the book, and this reader sensed strongly that he believed something amiss had happened, even as he obviously held great admiration for Escalante and his ability to motivate and instruct his students.
I thought of Escalante today while reading a compelling and remarkably thorough investigation by USA Today about the number of students in schools throughout the country, but largely in the nation’s capital, that had a higher than average erasure of incorrect to correct answers than the district average.
Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello’s investigation is worth reading for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its well-organized use of the Document Cloud tool.
And, for the purposes of this post, the work is most intriguing because of the light it shines on the role cheating might have played in test score gains accomplished during the brief and stormy tenure of former schools chief Michelle Rhee.
I wrote not too long ago about Richard Whitmire’s largely admiring biography of Rhee. The investigation focused on the Crosby S. Noyes Education Center, which was one of her favorite schools. The authors note that the teachers and principal there both received raises during her time, and that the school went from “a school deemed in need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its ‘shining stars.'”
Yet the gains may have been propelled by cheating.
The investigation, which shows in extensive detail the challenges it had in getting thorough responses from district leadership, does not conclusively show testing fraud.
But it does raise troubling questions about the students’ accomplishments and the role cheating may have played in them.
In investigating reporting, the expression often goes, “If something is too good to be true, it probably is.”
In the case of Noyes, which was one of the controversial Rhee’s prouder accomplishment, this may have turned out to be the case.
Unlike Escalante in the movie, Rhee, who is leading an effort to raise $1 billion to help support public education, chose not to comment.
That is unsurprising and unfortunate.
There is certainly a legitimate and much-needed conversation to be had about the best way to assess student learning, the amount of time chewed up by test taking and the educational consequences for our young people of being schooled in this regimen.
There is also something to be said for the tenacity and thoroughness of the USA Today team, which raised and analyzed the issue in such a comprehensive manner.
How widespread is cheating on standardized tests? Does the push for standards and linking teacher pay to student scores encourage this? How should we evaluate students’ progress?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.